2009 Conservators Annual Dinner Meeting

Richard Primack:  Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Concord

Henry David Thoreau and Richard Primack

Climate change means species loss. And the evidence is here, in Concord, according to Richard Primack, who addressed the Newton Conservators at their 2009 annual dinner. Henry David Thoreau was a close observer of nature. A hundred and fifty years ago, Thoreau recorded in detail the date for the first spring appearance of various animal and plant species near Walden Pond. By comparing data from Thoreau and new data from a study by their Boston University research team, Primack and Abraham Miller-Rushing have found much earlier blooming dates or arrival dates for certain migrating species, resulting in mis-synchronization of natural cycles. The result, says Primack, is a dramatic decline in biodiversity from the agrarian Concord of Thoreau to the present, with most of the decline occurring in the past 50 years.

Primack gave a wonderful presentation that covered his laboratory research efforts over the past decade on plant flowering activities. His laboratory group does research on conservation biology and plant ecology, including tropical ecology and climate change biology. He presented his research showing that many plants in the area where Henry David Thoreau once lived are now blooming earlier than at the time of Thoreau’s record. The current climate shows a temperature increase of more than two degrees Centigrade. Dr. Primack concludes that this is due to climate change and urbanization.

His laboratory group has been investigating the flora in the Concord area for over five years and has found significant differences in the flowering times of some plant species. In a recent publication (Ecology 89(2), 2008, pp. 332-341), he reported that these plants are now flowering, on average, a week earlier than reported by the botanical records by Thoreau and others. He found that plant flowering times are most correlated with mean temperatures in the months before flowering. Many plant species are no longer found in the area; this likely is due to the change in climate. His laboratory group is investigating whether or not the missing species are primarily plants that flower with a particular day length time period instead of plants that are strictly temperature dependent. He also discussed studies that found insects hatching earlier, a trend similar to that for temperature sensitive plants.

Problems arise with the migration of birds from South America that have their own photoperiod schedule and may arrive too late to effectively start their offspring, as their insect food base has moved to a new life cycle stage. Among the other observations by Primack and his team are these:

  • plants flowering eight days earlier than they did 150 years ago
  • wood ducks arriving six weeks earlier
  • birds from the southeast U.S. arriving earlier, but not birds from South America
  • 27% of species observed by Thoreau now extinct
  • 36% now rare in Concord
  • 21 orchid species in Thoreau’s time, versus seven now
  • 75% of species native 150 years ago, versus 61% now
  • 84 new species
  • 243 missing species

Most of Concord in Thoreau’s time was cleared land used for agriculture. Rare species in Concord are found in high concentrations at disturbed areas, including the former town dump, rather than at re-forested locations. Primack advocates active management of open spaces to create clearings where species that are now rare can flourish. He also advocates that we assist nature in re-locating species that may be endangered, moving species that historically have made a home in New Jersey or points south to our community and re-locating species from here to points north.

Professor Primack’s presentation was particularly well received by the Conservators, who gave him numerous questions to field. It was an exciting evening that was capped by a very moving presentation on the effects of global warming. You can learn more about Professor Primack’s research on his website at Boston University.

– William Hagar and Eric Reenstierna

Editor’s note: Primack’s book, Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2014.

President’s Report

Awards Presented

Environmentalists of the Year: Crystal Lake Conservancy

Robert Fizek, Schuyler Larrabee, Barbara Wales, Sedjan Nedelvkovic, and Janice Bourke

The Environmentalist of the Year Award was given to the Crystal Lake Conservancy, for its part in helping the city secure the acquisition of two parcels adjacent to the Crystal Lake Bathhouse, for their advocacy for the lake, and for their role in planning for its future. The Conservators joined this group with a $15,000 grant for study of the lake. Five members of the Conservancy were honored: Janice Bourke, Robert Fizek, Schuyler Larrabee, Sedjan Nedelvkovic, and Barbara Wales.

This was the 28th Environmentalist of the Year Award presented by the Newton Conservators to an individual or group who has made a distinguished environmental contribution to our community.

Charles Johnson Maynard Award:
David Backer of the Newton Environmental Science Program

David Backer

The Charles Johnson Maynard Award is given each year to recognize efforts to improve biodiversity, habitat reclamation, and natural resource protection.

The award, given for advancing the cause of biodiversity, went to David Backer for his leadership of the city’s Environmental Science Program, a summer program of environmental field study for dozens of Newton teens.


Directors’ Awards: Alderman Lisle Baker, Carol Stapleton, and Susan Avery

Three Directors’ Awards were made this year:

Alderman Lisle Baker, for his long-time work on behalf of open space interests, most recently involving a Conservation Restriction for the Commonwealth Golf Course, to protect it as open space in perpetuity

Alderman Lisle Baker receiving his award

Carol Stapleton of the Newton Parks and Recreation Department, for her enthusiastic support of Newton’s recreation opportunities and her dedication to the citizens of Newton, especially the children swimming at Crystal Lake

Carol Stapleton with Newton Conservators President Beth Schroeder

Sue Avery, head of the Conservators’ Land Management Committee, head of the Land Management Committee, for her leadership of a group that created detailed records of species present in Newton’s major open spaces.

Sue Avery
–photos by Henry Finch