Warming Up in Rye, Will We Be Ready for the Main Event?
By Bill Lawyer
On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, while many headed outdoors to enjoy the first weekend of all, all the seats were filled inside the historic Meeting House on Milton Road for a talk on climate change by a noted scientist and educator in the field.
Ironically, the message of the program was that attendees should get outside and look for signs of climate change. The person making the presentation was Dr. Richard Primack, the author of “An Introduction to Conservation Biology”, which has gone through several printings and editions. Dr. Primack, who has a Ph.D. from Duke University and has been on the faculty of Boston University for many years, received the Humboldt Award in 2015 for excellence in carrying out long-term research.
In recent years, he has been working with a team of students and graduate assistants to collect data about the extent and impact of global warming.
Dr. Primack began his presentation at the Meeting House with charts and graphs from the United Nations, which clearly show the worldwide increase in carbon dioxide and temperatures, and the fact that they are caused by human beings.
His presentation was challenging, as close to two-thirds of his audience was Rye Middle School students and the rest adults with varying degrees of knowledge on the subject.
Dr. Primack frequently peppered his talk with examples of how the issues he was discussing related to Rye. He explained how climate change would play out for our children and grandchildren.
At the start of the 21st century, as Dr. Primack was revising his textbook, he realized that most of the examples of climate change impact were in cold and snowy areas — the Arctic and the Swiss Alps.
So, to make the texts useful for local research, Dr. Primack decided to focus on the plants and animals of New England. One of his major sources of information about changes in the impact of global warming on the Boston area was Henry David Thoreau’s beloved Walden Pond.
Thoreau’s documentation of the things he observed there in the 1850s provides an excellent source for comparison with the plants and animals living now in the Concord area, to determine the extent of change over time.
Professor Primack described how this comparative study works: “Our lab focuses on how climate change affects the flowering, leafing out, fruiting, and leaf senescence times of plants, the migration times of birds, and the flight time of insects.” He and his team even got records of the timing of the cherry blossom festival over the years.
One of the changes he cited was due to phenology; there’s a host of periodic biological phenomena correlated with climatic conditions. For example, as temperatures stay warmer longer, some birds migrate later, feeding on insects in the Northeast that are still around when the cold weather arrives, meaning there’d be less food available for birds that don’t migrate.
Thoreau’s work was so important that Primack wrote a book on the subject, “Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods” (2014). Comprised of 14 chapters of data, he covers changing patterns of plant and animal life, including such things as the race times of Boston Marathon runners, noting that hotter temperatures mean slower times.
He also touched on the topic of “assisted migration”. Wildlife living in the Rye area could be moved further north as the temperatures increase.
The last few chapters look toward the big picture. Here’s what Primack thinks would be Thoreau’s advice to modern Americans: simplify your lives; use less; get outside and learn about the world; and, make modest changes now. Don’t wait for a “big fix.”
Dr. Richard Primack recording leafing-out data.