Smithsonian Optimism for the Blue Planet

An overview of the history of environmental conservation activities at the Smithsonian, since its founding in 1846. 

Louise Hoover's Painting of Joseph Henry At the Earth Optimism Summit convened by the Smithsonian Conservation Commons this past weekend, I spoke about the long history of conservation work at the Smithsonian.  The Smithsonian has been dedicated to understanding and sharing information about Planet Earth since our founding in 1846, using research and working with citizen scientists and partner organizations.

We began studying the planet in the 1840s when Secretary Joseph Henry created a network of volunteers to record weather data. Smithsonian scientists continued to record climate data about areas we studied.  Fast forward to the 1960s, when a passionate environmentalist, Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, expanded systematic environmental monitoring in areas such as the Chesapeake Bay and Panama.  Today these programs have evolved into Global Earth Observatories or GEOS programs, collecting and sharing online atmospheric, terrestrial and marine environmental data with partners across the globe. 

The Smithsonian is best known for its vast collections, with over 145 million specimens at the Natural History Museum alone.  In 1850, when naturalist Spencer Baird became the first curator, he repurposed weather observers into a collecting network. The National Museum’s specimens are carefully documented so new questions can be asked of historic specimens, using techniques such as genomics or analysis of pollutants in specimens. 

The Hayden Survey Party in Colorado, 1874.

The data collected about specimens is as important as the specimens in understanding how our world is changing.  When ecologists restored Gray Ranch in New Mexico, they asked, what was it like before the area was disturbed?  The Smithsonian Institution Archives holds 19th century field notes that document the relative density and distribution of organisms, invaluable data to restore this landscape.  Today these field notes are digitized through grant funding and transcribed by online volunteers who make this valuable information searchable and available online.

National Zoo reproductive biologist JoGayle Howard holding black-footed ferret kits, an endangered s Many of these specimens and field notes came from baseline environmental surveys. As the military explored the American West, Baird sent naturalists to document the geology, flora, and fauna.  These surveys provided a wealth of specimens and data on regions prior to Euro/American settlement.  When plans were announced to build the Panama Canal, Smithsonian scientists coordinated a pre-construction biological survey and joined a field station consortium.  Today that field station has evolved into the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which has created many programs to monitor and respond to environmental changes in the tropics. In the 1960s, the Smithsonian began to study the Chesapeake Bay watershed after a farmer left us land there.  Now the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, it carries out studies of estuarine systems and seeks solutions to environmental problems.

Since our early years, Smithsonian scientists have raised the alarm about environmental change.  In the 1870s, Secretary Baird studied the Greater Gulf of Maine fisheries and saw that North Atlantic fish stocks were badly depleted and sounded the alarm. Museum curators have assisted in a variety of conservation efforts, providing background information to Rachel Carson for her 1962 book, Silent Spring, and helping to write the Endangered Species Acts in the 1960s.

Conference convened for 1972 US publication of the Club of Rome's groundbreaking report, The Limits

Another example is the American bison.  In 1886 Taxidermist William Temple Hornaday was devastated to find that the plains bison had been hunted to near extinction, so he created exhibits and live animal displays that generated interest in saving this species which is still with us today.  The National Zoo remains at the forefront of our conservation efforts, especially its Conservation Biology Institute.  The zoo was an early adopter of Species Survival Plans and a pioneer in reproductive biology and reintroductions of such animals as the Black-footed ferret and now the oryx.

Exhibit "The Rat: Man's Invited Affliction" The Smithsonian also convenes discussions of environmental issues. One of the first exhibits at our Anacostia Community Museum was The Rat: Man’s Invited Affliction and it was a response to local environmental concerns.  The Anacostia Museum now coordinates the rich Urban Waterways project with a cadre of citizen scientists. 

Today the Internet facilitates data sharing, digital volunteers, and public education.  The Smithsonian Conservation Commons works with organizations across the globe in such efforts as Species Survival Plans, Global Earth Observatories, coordinating citizen scientists, and convening discussions. Challenges remain but the Smithsonian Conservation Commons is building on a tradition of monitoring and collecting, sharing and engagement, collaboration and citizen science, and positive action to protect the Blue Planet.

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