Global Warming, Up Close and Local

author: Richard B. Primack, Department of Biology, Boston University
published: Oct. 12, 2011,   recorded: February 2007,   views: 68
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Description

Wanted: Citizen-observers to document springtime arrivals and departures of common plants and animals. Richard Primack and Abraham Miller-Rushing hope to enlist your help in a project aimed at gathering data on the impact of climate change. In conversation with Museum audience members, they describe their work to date, and what they need from volunteers.

Signs of global warming aren’t turning up just at the polar ice caps. When daffodils bloom in January in New England, it’s clear the climate is off kilter more generally. Accurate data from specific regions on when flowers bloom, or when birds migrate to their breeding grounds, says Primack, will help scientists draw an accurate and detailed picture of how warming is altering local ecosystems.

Primack and Miller-Rushing have begun to pinpoint climate impact patterns in the Northeastern U.S., and they have some historical help: the journals of Henry David Thoreau, who observed when more than 600 species of plants flowered in Concord, MA. Thoreau’s diaries and tables help demonstrate not only a drastic loss of local plant species, but a wholesale shift in the flowering dates of surviving plants. For instance, the highbush blueberry blooms almost a month earlier than in Thoreau’s time. Primack and Miller-Rushing also came across a treasure trove of 19th-century cemetery photos, enabling stark contrasts with our own times: trees not yet in leaf on Memorial Day in the last century.

In Europe, where data’s been gathered for years, some insect-catching birds are in serious decline, as they migrate to their spring breeding grounds out of phase with their prey. Primack’s initial U.S. data reveals similar alterations. The blackpoll warbler, for instance, which migrates long distances, “has no idea what the temperatures are here,” and shows up too early from its wintering grounds.

Primack and Miller-Rushing have launched a program to gather data from locations across New England, from the mountains of New Hampshire to the cities. They encourage all keen-eyed naturalists to respond to their questionnaires, and to develop a seasonal awareness of, among other things, when ponds and lakes thaw, when butterflies first appear, and when peepers begin their spring chorus.

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