UNL research links Wilder’s 'Long Winter' with climate data

Barbara Mayes Boustead
Barbara Mayes Boustead

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s description of the weather in "The Long Winter" is a good bridge between readers of the historic fiction series and climate science, says Barbara Mayes Boustead, a doctoral student in UNL's School of Natural Resources.

Boustead is using historic data to verify Wilder’s account of the winter of 1880-81, and her work was featured in the Aug. 22 edition of USA Today. Read the complete story at http://go.unl.edu/nuz.

“The communication of the science is just as important as the science,” said Boustead, who is also a National Weather Service meteorologist and climatologist. “I want to show that a scientist can do this type of research and also communicate it effectively. Connecting it to a book like 'The Long Winter' allows me to reach a wider audience that isn’t necessarily interested in weather.”

Talking about weather in historic children’s literature is a safe entry point for a broader discussion on climate and weather patterns, such as the idea that the climate may be warming.

Even if patterns mimic those in 1880-81 — with El Niño and a strongly negative North Atlantic oscillation — Boustead said the region would be hard-pressed to have a winter that lasts six months. Those same conditions were in place in 2009-2010, bringing dramatic cold and snow, but for a much shorter period.

Boustead presented a preliminary paper on her research, "Laura’s Long Winter: Putting the Hard Winter of 1880-81 into Perspective," in July at the American Meteorological Society’s 19th Conference on Applied Climatology. The paper is available for download at http://go.unl.edu/ysp.

Boustead’s research specialty is climate assessment and impacts. Her dissertation topic is directed at building a historical weather and climate narrative. She is supervised by Martha Shulski and Ken Hubbard, climatologists with the High Plains Regional Climate Center. Shulski is director of the center. Hubbard is senior scientist.

Boustead credits her mother with her longstanding interest in the Wilder books.

“My mom gave me my first one when I was 6. I rolled my eyes but I read them, several times, and continue to read them as an adult,” she said.

Boustead provides an ongoing account of her research in her blog, "Wilder Weather," available at http://go.unl.edu/wilder_weather.

— Kelly Helm Smith, School of Natural Resources