Skip Navigation

Family albums highlight climate change

August 9, 2006 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

Experts turn to old notebooks and photos to press home global warming message.

Climate researchers and ecologists are usually known for using complex computer simulations to study environmental change. But Boston University researchers are using more humble sources to determine the effects of climate change on local flora and fauna.

For the past three years, Richard Primack and Abraham Miller-Rushing have asked Massachusetts residents with long memories and a record-keeping habit to show how rising temperatures over the decades have changed the nature around them.

The data they have collected from amateur naturalists, farmers, landscape gardeners and photographers show that trees are sprouting leaves earlier in spring, birds are changing their migratory habits, and the patterns of flowers' blooming is changing.

"It's a good way to show that something is really happening, to species that people know," says Primack, who presented the work at the meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Memphis, Tennessee. "It will help us make the argument that global climate change is a reality even more convincing to the public."

Interesting times

It's a good way to show that something is really happening, to species that people know.
Richard Primack,
Boston University
The vast majority of scientists are convinced both that global warming is real, and that it is hitting ecosystems in measurable ways. The new initiative is intended to help convince members of the public and government officials who are still suspicious of climate predictions.

"The president is still not convinced that climate change is a reality, and our policy reflects that," Primack told "But with the Al Gore movie An Inconvenient Truth, Hurricane Katrina and the recent heatwaves, we're entering an interesting period where we can make people focus on climate change."

The data donated to his project don't prove the science behind climate change but do make the effects easy to grasp, he says. For example, Kathleen Anderson, who lives near Boston, donated decades' worth of diaries showing that, in 1965, wood duck (Aix sponsa) arrived in her pond in mid-April. Now, the ducks consistently turn up in late February.

In another example, an early photograph of Lowell Cemetery in Massachusetts, taken in May 1868, shows leafless trees. A modern May photograph is full of foliage. Primack notes that Boston has warmed by around 2.5 C during this time above average for the United States, but a level of warming that is expected across the country during this century.

The researchers will shortly publish the photographs and their other findings in the American Journal of Botany.

This is not the first time that unusual data sources have flagged up changes to ecosystems. Menus reflect declines in fish stocks, for example, by showing that depleted fish have become more expensive (see ' Old menus reveal collapse of fish stocks').

Primack and Miller-Rushing plan to keep appealing to any Bostonians who can help show the effect of climate change, be they botanists, naturalists or historians. "We just get up at as many meetings as we can and tell people what we're looking for," Primack says.

Visit our newsblog to read and post comments about this story.


Need Assistance?

If you need help or have a question please use the links below to help resolve your problem.