Science Turns to Literature for Understanding

January 16, 2014

triangle land conservancy

Did you ever think that books assigned in high school English class could actually help further climate research? We all know that classic literature opens our eyes to the societal landscape of decades and centuries ago, but who would think it could open our eyes to the natural landscape?

A recent study has done just that! Scientists at Boston University have compared current observations of the natural with unpublished observations by one of America’s most favorite authors: Henry David Thoreau.

“Climate-change studies by Boston University biologists,” states a Boston University press release, “show leaf-out times of trees and shrubs at Walden Pond are in average of 18 days earlier than when Henry David Thoreau made his observations there in the 1850s.”

At first glance, 18 extra days of growing may seem positive. Unfortunately, there’s a draw back. “In New England,” the release continues, “plants have to be cautious about leafing out in the early spring. If they leaf out too early, their young leaves could suffer from subsequent late frost.” In warm years, invasive species grow faster and earlier than native plants. In frost years, native plants and invasive species alike are at risk of frost killing their new leaves.

Literature is not only moving science forward; an entirely new genre known as “cli-fi,” (climate fiction) has popped up. Popular titles include Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, a novel highlighting the monarch butterfly, and Ian McEwan’s Solar, whose protagonist seeks energy sources to replace fossil fuels. While cli-fi titles may not contribute to researcher’s climate science anytime soon, they are a unique method for discussing environmental issues. Think interdepartmental courses, book clubs, and reading circles.

Next time you’re in a library or trolling the book stacks (real or virtual), considering dusting off a novel from your region written a hundred years ago and compare its observations of the environment with your own, or check out the newest cli-fi novel to hit the shelves. Find an interesting book? Tell us about it on our Facebook page!

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