Prof: Great Plains in danger

Climate change is decreasing the agricultural productivity of the Great Plains, America’s bread basket, said Melinda Smith, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, at this week’s Colloquium on Food, Agriculture, and the Environment, which drew a crowd of 18 to Kroon Hall’s Burke auditorium Wednesday evening.

During the 90-minute lecture Smith discussed climate change’s impact on grasslands that thrive in dry, warm regions and process carbon efficiently. She also outlined a number of experiments she is currently conducting to see how soil productivity is affected by changing weather patterns, higher maximum and minimum temperatures, and more intense extreme weather events like droughts.

“The data will go directly into modeling efforts to understand how livestock production will be affected [by climate change],” she said.

She also said her research could be used to identify new plants that could both survive in the bread basket’s changing environment and be used for biofuel or crossbred with wheat.

Smith has spent the last 10 years monitoring how climate change could affect soil production in the Great Plains.

At the lecture she presented data she had gathered since 1997 using her Rainfall Manipulation Plots, controlled greenhouses in Kansas that change the timing of rainfall to mimic weather patterns that are being caused by climate change.

Another experiment she discussed was her Climate Extremes Experiment in which she uses UV lamps to impose artificial heat waves on plots of grassland in the Great Plains. Smith said she has found a clear and significant correlation between climate change’s predicted effects and decreases in biomass production and biodiversity.

“I know this might be a little doom and gloom,” she said.

Smith said she is excited for future experiments and, in particular, one in which she will analyze the effects of intense extreme weather events like droughts.

Two of Smith’s students from the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies attended Smith’s lecture and said they found it informative.

“Usually in an interdisciplinary school you don’t get a lot of methodological talk, but with Melinda you get more of the weeds, the particulars,” said Steve Wood FES ’11, one of Smith’s students.

Ami Potter, who works at the Yale University Art Gallery, said Smith’s perspective on the effects of global warming was refreshingly detailed. She said she and her daughter Maya Potter, a local high school student, have attended all the colloquium’s lectures thus far.

The next lecture in the Colloquium on Food, Agriculture, and the Environment, “The Domestication of Plants, Animals, and Fire and the Melancholy Consequences following Therefrom,” will take place April 7.

The series is co-sponsored by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the Yale Program in Agrarian Studies, the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and the Yale Sustainable Food Project.

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