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Henry David Thoreau's work may have been on your high school English reading list, but future generations of students may also be studying the American transcendentalist's work during third-period Science.
The Guardian reports that Boston University biology professor Richard Primack and fellow researcher Abraham Miller-Rushing used the writer’s unpublished records to study how flowering dates of certain plants had evolved since the author’s death in 1862, helping the pair track the impact of climate change in Massachusetts.
Though Thoreau is best remembered for such works as Walden, in which he documented his two years living in woodlands near Concord, Mass., the ardent abolitionist and philosopher was also a naturalist who tracked the blooming dates for over 500 species of wildflowers. Between 1851 and 1858, Thoreau dutifully recorded the timing of Concord’s flowers in a set of tables.
The timing of flowering dates—known as phenology—in a temperate climate such as that of Massachusetts is very sensitive to temperature. Over 155 years later, the scientists compared those dates to those of many of the same flowers. After deciphering Thoreau’s “notoriously bad” handwriting, they found that the plants, on average, flower 10 days earlier than back in Thoreau's time. From other research by another amateur naturalist who recorded temperatures on her Massachusetts farm, the researchers estimate that the average temperature has increased by 3.64 degrees Fahrenheit, notes LiveScience.
The researchers are confident in their findings, with Primack telling The Guardian that Thoreau “was a keen observer of nature and a dedicated journalist” who “was also an activist, and perhaps he would also be involved in the movement to reduce the greenhouse gases that are linked to climate change."
Their research can be found in an article for the journal BioScience.