Alexander MacKay and the speed of climate change

Look at this handsome fellow:
Why it's Dr. Alexander MacKay, superintendent of education for Nova Scotia's schools (or so said his students and faculty, a little over 100 years ago). And they no doubt complained about this scientific taskmaster, for MacKay was a serious scientist, particularly interested in smallish creatures (e.g. lichens, particularly, and diatoms): he published on those subjects. He eventually taught biology, although he favored math and physics earlier in college. And while he may have focused on his favorite creatures, he forced his students to study nature much more broadly:

"Can you believe that he's having us carry out our science lessons constantly, through the observation of nature? He wants us to watch for the first dandelion, for the first robin; to record the moment when our parents do the haying.... It's unbearable!"

Each of the little rascals in this photo of a Guysborough, Nova Scotia, school circa 1900 might have been tasked with carrying out Dr. MacKay's observations.

Oh MacKay didn't set out to be cruel, but he had bigger fish to fry. Here's the description of his objectives, as published in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography: "Concerned about rural depopulation, MacKay developed rural-science programs that he believed would address the problem by encouraging children's scientific interest in nature. In addition to providing training and classroom materials for teachers, he instituted an unusual program of phenological observation for rural schoolchildren. This scheme required students to note the first appearance of botanical phenomena during the year and to provide the information to the teacher, who in turn submitted it along with the school's attendance register at the end of each year. The Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History holds MacKay's collection of these phenological reports from 1898 to 1923, and in the 1990s the observations were of considerable interest to scientists concerned with climatic change in Canada."

Notice that connection between rural depopulation, which MacKay thought to combat by encouraging scientific interest in nature. People today would certainly say "Are you crazy?" Science is not sexy today -- was it then? But we can sympathize with MacKay: how many students today have lost touch with nature -- are clued in to their electronics, their iPads, their iPhones, and have no idea when haying begins, or understand the expression "make hay while the sun shines"?

"Mackay was very serious about his observation program. Training was provided to teachers, and meticulous records were kept. Each teacher was required to submit an annual sheet with the timing of the over 100 observations. These were tallied into ledgers ... of which any accountant would be proud. Mackay himself was not simply another government administrator, but he was a member of the Royal Society of Canada and published regularly on lichens and his phenological observation network across Canada."
A map showing the locations of the schools in MacKay's database. It's quite a nice coverage of Nova Scotia schools -- astonishingly good. Unfortunately continuous climate records from that time were taken at only five locations. source

The major irony in MacKay's story is that his contributions to science, which he imagined were in the areas of lichens and diatoms, may have been even more important in the science of climate change. Because plants and animals respond to climate by migrating, we expect that the distributions and timings of nature's events will change as well. MacKay's extensive catalog of events from the turn of the 20th century provide a rare opportunity for scientists today to compare and see how things have changed:

This is "phenology" (in case you were wondering about that word "phenological" that kept appearing above -- it might have reminded you of the study of the shapes of peoples' heads -- phrenology -- or some other study). Phenology is actually "...the study of the synchronization of developmental states of plants and animals with the seasons." For example, bees begin to forage at the same time as their favorite hosts flower. It's no accident, but rather the dance that evolution has choreographed so well over millions of years. And we are acting as "agents of uncoordination", messing with Mother Nature's dance. And, as we used to hear in the Chiffon Margarine commercials, It's not nice to fool Mother Nature!

MacKay was aware, however, of the implications of his work. His work was cited in the Presidential address of the Nova Scotian Institute of Science of March 14, 1898, recorded in the Proceedings of the Nova Scotian Institute of Science that his phenological observations "...may lead to some important generalizations regarding the relation of organized life to latitude and other climatic conditions." (p. ii)

Furthermore, in comments that foreshadow his future role in defining science education in Nova Scotia, the President goes on to say that "[i]f we would study Nature honestly and effectively we must meet her face to face. She does not woo by proxy, by text-books, illustrations, or recitations."

Work of MacKay's own hand, published in 1898. His counties are roughly organized by latitude, as he suggested above in his comments. MacKay went on to describe 10 phenochrons for Nova Scotia, which were zones with reasonably similar onsets of natural phenomena. Today we might call them ecozones. He put the words phenology and chronology together to create his phenochrons.

Dr. MacKay was the complete package: a thoughtful and considerate educator, a diligent and thorough researcher, a leader in the scientific academy, an able and farsighted administrator, and even a wordsmith. We can only thank our lucky stars that leaders like Dr. MacKay have enlivened our world, and do what we can to emulate him.

Links and Notes:
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