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Shugart follows natural interests to virtual outcomes

Hank Shugart
Photo by Jenny Gerow
Hank Shugart

By Fariss Samarrai

Environmental sciences professor Hank Shugart has been called “Dr. Shugart” since he was 14 years old.

When Shugart was a boy growing up in El Dorado, Ark., in the 1950s, he developed a passion for studying and collecting unusual native and migratory birds in southern Arkansas. He held a federal collector’s permit, which allowed him to shoot unusual birds for scientific purposes. He sent these specimens to the Smithsonian and the Museum of Natural History, along with detailed descriptions of where they were found, nicely typed by his father’s secretary.

“The stuff must have looked pretty professional,” he said. “I started getting envelopes with forms to file addressed to ‘Dr. Shugart.’”

At 16, he bought a lifetime membership to the American Ornithologists’ Union, which included a subscription to its journal, The Auk. He still receives it monthly.
“I was a naturalist from the start,” he said. “I lived in a relatively rural area, and I got out in the woods a lot.”

He even made spending money by collecting frogs and salamanders for a biological supply company that sold preserved amphibians to schools and colleges.

Shugart’s biggest accomplishment as a young naturalist was his sighting of a snow bunting — a tundra bird — near a lake in Arkansas. This was, at the time, the farthest south this bird had been seen anywhere on earth. Shugart “collected” that, too, and sent it to a professor at the University of Arkansas who eventually became his master’s degree adviser.

When Shugart earned his Ph.D. in 1971 at the University of Georgia, he produced a dissertation on the habitat selection of small sparrows.

There are two good reasons to use computer models.

First, they allow scientists to synthesize what they know, to put together the pieces of a very large puzzle of how ecosystems work and to discover if important pieces are missing.

Second, they provide a tool to predict what will happen if the environment changes.

Hank Shugart
Director, Global Environmental Change Program
Environmental Sciences

He may have learned a thing or two from all the scientific articles he read as a boy. He has published more than 300 articles, including 12 books and numerous book chapters.

Along the way, Shugart’s interest in the woods went virtual. He took a position as a research ecologist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and began developing computer models of forest ecosystems.

He got good at it.Currently, Shugart holds the W.W. Corcoran Chair in environmental sciences and directs the Global Environmental Change Program. He is known among scientists as one of the leading computer modelers of natural ecosystems.

“As individual scientists, we don’t live long enough to observe long-term environmental change,” Shugart said. “Computer models are one way to get around the problem.”

There are two good reasons to use models, according to Shugart. First, they allow scientists to synthesize what they know, to put together the pieces of a very large puzzle of how ecosystems work and to discover if important pieces are missing.

Second, they provide a tool to predict what will happen if the environment changes.
“What happens if we add or lose species or if the climate changes?” Shugart asks. “We are trying to develop models that will give us plausible answers.”

The concept of climate change from greenhouse gases is a product of computer models developed by atmospheric scientists. These climate models are highly complex; they crunch masses of data to produce a picture of possible future conditions, allowing scientists to consider the implications of these changes.

Shugart and his colleagues have worked with global-scale and regional vegetation models to evaluate climate change effects. Because global models of vegetation are large and have many uncertainties, they tend to produce “oversimplified and relatively vague” predictions, Shugart said. But regional models, centering on a particular place on Earth — such as southern Africa, where Shugart has conducted research for 20 years — can provide much richer detail in their predictions.

“We have a long history of developing individual-based computer models that keep track of each tree in a forest, providing highly detailed information about growth and height and other factors,” Shugart said. “We are making models that show what natural ecosystems are like, including both the plants and animals.”

By understanding the dynamics of individual trees, scientists can gain knowledge of changes in the forest. Ultimately, regional models with richer detail can be combined to produce better global understanding.

Researchers also “ground truth” their models with actual field and satellite observations, allowing them to tweak the details for greater accuracy. This often involves international travel. Shugart, who travels 40,000 to 60,000 miles annually, recently returned from Russia, where he is starting a program to study northern forests.

Shugart and his colleagues, Steve Macko, Bob Swap and Paul Desanker, also teach modeling to students internationally. Students from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas have come to U.Va. to learn the latest techniques in ecosystem modeling. This semester Shugart is teaching a teleducation course simultaneously to students at U.Va. and the University of Botswana in southern Africa. The class is producinge a model of an African village, showing how people affect the local environment and how local environments affect people.

Shugart also is working on a book about how humans have changed the landscape through history. “Each chapter is an animal parable, like traditional folk tales,” he said. “For domesticated animals, the parable is about dogs, derived from wolves.

The parable becomes a discussion about animal domestication, changes due to domesticated animals on landscapes, and finally how our domestication of animals has changed us.”


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