Spotlight on Science: Adam Smith

Adam Smith, Assistant Scientist, Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development

Studying climate change can be bleak, but there have been a couple times Garden Scientist Adam Smith has been truly shocked with the results of his studies.

Smith, Assistant Scientist in the Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development (CCSD) at the Missouri Botanical Garden, uses mathematical models to understand how plants and other organisms respond to climate change. He recalls twice that his results prompted him to “shove away from the desk in horror.”

The first was when he was looking at a rare plant species that now grows in Tennessee and Georgia. He projected its location into 2050, and it didn’t move much. Then he projected it into 2070, and it disappeared. At first, he thought he’d made a mistake. Then, he thought to zoom out and found it—in Newfoundland. “I thought, ‘My God, what does this mean for me?’” he recalls.

The other incident involved a recent map looking at forests in Madagascar. No matter what Smith did or how optimistic he made his model, he couldn’t get the forest to last pass 2080.

“Madagascar is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world…you just can’t replace that.”

Adam Smith, Assistant Scientist, CCSD

Results like this can make studying climate change depressing, Smith admits. But he sees it like being a doctor. You want to find the right balance between caring and being desensitized.

And Smith’s models are like a diagnosis. He creates maps that look at what will happen to specific species decades into the future. Will they move farther north? Will climate change eliminate their habitat all together? That information is then used to make conservation decisions.

For instance, fellow Garden Scientist Matthew Albrecht is working to seedbank 100 plant species. Seed banks are a conservation tool that enable the long-term storage of genetic diversity of a large number of plant species. Albrecht asked Smith to use his models to determine which species to collect first. Smith ranked those most likely to disappear as a top priority and those less impacted by climate change farther down.

In addition to climate data, Smith’s models consider how plants have responded to rapid climate change in the past to predict how they will respond in the future. “It’s not a perfect analogy for what’s happening right now,” he explains, “but it’s the only thing we’ve got.”

Most species shifted their growing range as temperatures increased instead of adapting to warmer climates. That gives scientists confidence in the models’ future projections. It can also be combined with other data, like genetic analysis done by Garden Scientist Christy Edwards, to help make conservation decisions.

The ability to work on conservation is what brought Smith to the Garden in 2011, though he hadn’t previously considered working for a botanical garden. Smith earned his master’s in ecology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his PhD from UC Berkeley. His dissertation focused on three topics—what controls plant diversity, international policy governing conservation of large marine mammals, and the ethics of extinction.

“What it all focuses around in the end is attempts to preserve these things that could persist for millions of years and yet, due to simple administrative decision or the desire to make a quick buck, we can drive these things to extinction basically in the snap of a finger.”

Adam Smith, Assistant Scientist, CCSD

After completing his PhD Smith took a post at Berkley re-surveying sites that had been surveyed 100 years ago to see how climate and other factors had affected the mammals living there. As that came to a close, he saw the position listed at the Garden assessing conservation needs of species and trying to forecast what those needs would be in the future. He took the three-year position and it quickly became permanent.

Although he interviewed in person, Smith didn’t stroll the Garden grounds until he started his post. “It blew my mind,” he says of seeing the Garden for the first time.

The Garden’s long history as a scientific institution and its resources for researchers also impressed him. He plans to use the Garden’s herbarium, one of the largest in the world, to study past effects of climate change by looking at changes in flowering. Smith also said he appreciates the Garden’s flexibility in giving him freedom to choose what subject he studies.

One new subject on the horizon for Smith is looking at the potential effect of widespread use of self-driving cars on the environment. Research shows that on average, humans tolerate a roughly 30-minute commute driving. If society moved to self-driving cars and people could rest or work during their commute, Smith hypothesizes they may be willing to travel farther. That could cause urban areas “to explode.” He plans to study how that will impact wild lands and plants and animals there.

Another project Smith is gearing up for is studying “microrefugia,” or small places like sheltered coves or north-facing bluffs that have cooler temperatures than the surrounding areas. Typically, the models Smith uses are coarse data, going mile by mile, and that can miss microrefugia. To get “really fine-scale measurements,” Smith and Garden colleague Stephen Murphy have set out temperature sensors and soil moisture meters throughout Washington University’s Tyson Research Center.

The goal of the project, which is funded through a grant from the Living Earth Collaborative, is to understand what types of topographic features are important to conserve to ensure species can persist despite climate change.

While it continues to be difficult to talk about climate change, Smith says in recent years it’s become more front of mind for people.

“It may not be the most important political issue, but it’s a constant political issue.”

Catherine Martin
Public Information Officer

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