Saturday, December 23, 2006

George Demas - In Memoriam

Soil scientist George Demas (28 April 1958 - 23 December 1999) pioneered the study and classification of subaqueous soil. He passed away on this day seven years ago. His award winning work advanced the understanding of soil genesis and morphology sufficiently that USDA soil taxonomy required revision. George Demas' death occurred shortly after the importance of subaqueous soil became accepted. His sudden and untimely passing is a great loss to his family of colleagues and friends.

See also: George Demas Elected as Honorary Member of MAPSS, and Wikipedia Article.

Tech Tags:

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Blog Break

I'll be diverting my energies to friends, family and such for the rest of the month. Hope everybody has a good Holiday season.

The picture I leave you with was taken a few miles west of Spokane, out by Fishtrap Lake, before the snow came in.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

My picks from Vadose Zone Journal

My picks from Vadose Zone Journal May 2005; Vol. 4 (2): 225 - 451

VZJ articles are released to open access 18 months after online publication. These articles became available on November 13, 2006.

Buckingham, 1907: An Appreciation.

Buckingham's methodical development of an unsaturated flow theory from first principles facilitates a grasp that one seldom gets from textbooks. As a physicist in the company of agricultural scientists, Buckingham articulated his findings mostly in written prose, without much reliance on mathematics. His foundational ideas are as valid today as when he proposed them.

Simplified Method to Estimate the Green–Ampt Wetting Front Suction and Soil Sorptivity with the Philip–Dunne Falling-Head Permeameter

A simple, innovative method is presented to estimate saturated hydraulic conductivity in soil. The only paired data points necessary for this proposed new method are the times when the permeameter is half full and when it reaches empty.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Invasive Earthworms

Its in the news. Research shows that invasive earthworms are damaging forest soils and are a menace to species diversity. Brought to light in November, 2002, gardening experts have confirmed the concern and the news keeps spreading. Fortunate for inquiring minds, self-archived copies of published journal articles are available. The problem is most often associated with formerly glaciated regions, where native populations of earthworms are not present. One work has a general map of affected locations (can compare to map here).

Another work addresses damage to soil. Comparing soil in front of the invaders to post invasion conditions demonstrates that these worms cause soil compaction, reduce soil fertility, increase erosion. Alterations in the soil profile include thickening of A horizons and obliteration of E horizons. I am still processing this information, but it appears that these invaders are capable of alterations deep enough into the soil profile to result in a change in soil taxonomic classification at the order level.

What looks to be one of the more prominent invasive species, Lumbricus rubellus showed up in my maple leaf compost (now vermicompost). I can confirm that L. rubellus is voracious. I remember a shovel slice of some nearby soil that went in a week or so before L. rubellus showed so my guess is they came with the place. L. rubellus operates on the surface litter and organic material found where that layer rests on the mineral soil. There are strong indications that L. rubellus supplements its leafy diet by feeding on the fungi and bacteria in the rhizosphere of plant roots. Seeing first hand how these critters operate, I find this last aspect quite disturbing. With its carbon sequestration function and the highly mutualistic species that it supports, this planet needs all the rhizospheric biological capacity it can muster.

Monday, December 11, 2006

NC Science Blogging Conference Jan 20, 2007

The world needs more science bloggers.[1] There are a lot of science bloggers in NC.[2] Soil science bloggers are few.[3] There is a concentration of soil scientists in and very close to North Carolina.[4] Soil scientists should go to the 2007 Science Blogging Conference Sat, Jan 20, 2007, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Chapel Hill, NC.[5]


Sunday, December 10, 2006

New Soil Science Licensing Website

Renewed soil science licensing efforts are underway in Washington State. Supporting them is a new website. Titled Soil Science Licensing, the site is available to become a clearinghouse for all soil science licensing efforts. It links to the best available information, including the list of soil science licensing boards maintained by the Soil WikiProject.

For now, the Soil Science Licensing site effort is strictly focussed on Washington state's efforts. The latest revision (pdf) (December 7, 2006) has been posted and I have one concern with the new wording:

The practice of soil science does not include design work, such as would be carried out by either engineers, as defined in RCW 18.43.020 or architects, as defined in RCW 18.08.320.
We need something along these lines, but the term "design work" is not specifically defined in the cited sections, but is referred to somewhat broadly. Is this going to be a problem? Perhaps someone with experience in one of the licensed states can comment.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

GeoCorp America Soil Science Internships

GeoCorps America has announced that 40 jobs will be available this summer, 2007, for work with the National Park Service, US Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management. These are paid geoscience positions at many interesting locations. GeoCorps Positions pay a $2,500 stipend for 10-12 weeks of duty and free housing is provided. The positions are open to students, teachers, professionals and retirees. Of the 40 jobs, two are soil scientist positions and I would characterise both as college internships. One is in the BLM Butte Falls Resource Area (out of Medford, OR), assessing trail conditions on hiking trails and assessing impacts from off-highway vehicle use. The other is in the Sierra National Forest (out of Clovis, CA) and involves sampling and monitoring under the supervision of the Forest Soil Scientist. Expectations of the candidates for the second one are a tad more demanding. Classwork in pedology, edaphology, geology, ecology and botany is a plus. Application postmark deadline is Friday, 2 February, 2007.

Source post: Geology News.

Soil and Bioavailability of P in Food

Researchers find that soil phosphorus levels may affect plant phytate levels as much as plant breeding. Phytate is the principal storage form of phosphorus in many plant tissues, especially bran and seeds.

Phytate is generally not bioavailable to humans and non-ruminant animals. Accordingly, there has been a push to develop low-phytate crop varieties. Not only is the phosphorus in low-phytate grain crops more digestible by people, low-phytate grains free up minerals essential to human nutrition: zinc, manganese and iron. This new research shows that grain raised with higher levels of soil phosphorus can have higher levels of phytate. I have not read ($) the journal article, but my thoughts are that the discovery of this soil connection was not anticipated: normally nutritional availability does not decrease with increased soil nutrient levels. If this relationship can be validated, it is an important breakthrough that affects human nutrition, efficient use of phosphorus (a non-renewable resource), farm costs, and environmental quality.

Swine and poultry operations benefit. Low-phytate feed results in lower manure phosphorus for these non-ruminants, a welcome prospect for waste management and addressing water quality concerns. Swine rations often need phosphorus added to ensure bone and muscle development for rapid growth, driving the market development for new, low-phytate crop varieties. The alternative to low-phytate feed is to use a feed additive, phytase. Currently, neither approach is particularly cheap.

Appreciation and attribution:
Sugar Creek Farm for a great photo.
GMO Pundit aka David Tribe for posting on this.

($) According to my read of HighWire Publishers Free Online Full-text Articles list, the journal article will be made available at no cost April 2, 2008 (18 months after publication).

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

New Soil Science Blog at University of Western Australia

Andrew Rates (UWA) has started a blog for UWA's caffeine-dependent Soil Science Journal Club. It is a closed forum, intended for "UWA Higher Degree by Research students and UWA staff only." This is the type of idea that we could see perpetuating similar efforts at other schools and research groups.

The idea of this blog is to record the progress of a journal club, and preferably to provide an ongoing resource for people interested in recent advances in Soil Science and related disciplines.

I have in mind running a Journal Club for interested postgraduate students and staff. I would like to focus on recent significant advances and developments in Soil Science, preferably including all subdisciplines (soil biology, soil chemistry, soil physics, pedology, ...).

Articles are likely to be sourced predominantly from premier / high-impact journals such as Science, Nature, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Earth and Planetary Science Reviews, etc. This isn't to say that we can't access the more traditional soils journals, but I'd like (at least at first) to focus on big-picture, high-impact issues.
There is a promising post here of the group's first discussion subject: Marris, E. 2006. Putting the carbon back: Black is the new green. Nature 442:624-626 . It seems to me these folks are asking the right questions.

I have added this site to my (frightfully short) list of soil science blogs.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Soil, or ground fit to bring forth fruit (1702)

Dating to the dawn of the 18th century, this may well be the first dictionary definition of soil. And a beautiful bit of prose it is. A term reserved for the good stuff, the definition has a hint of awe, of appreciation, of desire even. And of simple mystery.

At a time when the definition of soil has achieved some ambiguity, and some of us exclude lunar soil from "real" soil, I am intrigued by these old definitions.

Reading further in John Kersey's "A New English Dictionary", one finds that the ground meant earth. It also meant "the foundation of a thing". If he had chosen to use earth instead of ground, JK would have changed the meaning of soil to one less involved with our daily interaction. Was this an intentional distinction?

His meaning of fruit includes benefit. ''Fruit of the earth" and "first fruits" were common and established terms. JK has "first fruits" meaning "...profit of a spiritual living". At a time when we suppose the concept of soil to have been simple, why didn't JK keep the definition of soil simple and agronomic, unencumbered with spiritual and beneficiant tones? I find his wording wonderfully rich with subtle allusion.

Soils are commonly understood as materials with a capacity for plant productivity. That is too broad. Most soils have a history that includes alteration by living processes, a history that separates soil from non-soil material. Further refinement of the soil concept is occurring in view of an appreciation of energy transport and transformation within soil. Accurate to this unfolding understanding of soil is Nikiforoff's 1959 definition of soil as the "excited skin of the subaerial part of the earth's crust". Soil is a product of solar radiation. From this perspective the concepts of lunar soil and of martian soil are not so inconceivable.

John Kersey's dictionary is recognized as the first work that incorporated all words of important common usage. Prior to this work, dictionaries concentrated on difficult and obscure words. This is according to "Chasing the sun: dictionary makers and the dictionaries they made" by Jonathon Green. I turn the pages of JK's work and I sense tremendous care in his choice of words. In the case of soil, he relied on rich allusion to gently convey something of the knowing that he and his fellows had about this dark and excited resource. His definition of soil thus stands the test of time as well as, and perhaps better than, many that have been been written since.

Tech Tags:

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Soil WikiProject

This year I have been participating with the Soil WikiProject. Working with a small group of Wikipedians interested in the earth sciences has been a fulfilling learning experience. The first order of business was to organize a comfortable directory structure on which to hang soil-related articles. I especially like the common sense way agricultural soil science and environmental soil science are treated as branches of edaphology, separating edaphic subjects from the pedology articles. It works particularly well in Wikipedia, where various aspects of soil science are informally laid claim to by other subject categories. For example, pedology has a prominent place in the physical geography directory structure : before the project the whole of soil science was treated as a derivative science of geography (and agronomy and geology and so forth).

From the above, you may think the articles are being rewritten strictly from a soil science point of view. They are not - the directory structure is intended to group similar subjects, not to narrow the perspective. The importance of an open perspective in Wikipedia is among the more difficult aspects for scientists to process when they begin editing. In my opinion, this is why most scientists seem drawn to contributing narrow subject matter. That's a fine place to start, but the more general subject matter is where the traffic is, where the effort is most appreciated, and where the collaborative wiki process works most efficiently. I'll expand on why this is important to soil scientists in future posts.

The project has about 400 soil-related articles to work on. Another 50-plus article subjects have been identified as needed, mostly involving pedology. The effort could use another pedologist or two. A good place for U.S. soil scientists to start is to check out the list of state soils. If your state is like most, that article remains to be written

With so many articles, part of the effort has been to concentrate on a short list of articles most important to the project. Along these lines, the soil article recently came through an extensive article improvement campaign. The article had the benefit of editorial review after it was proposed as a featured article. While it did not achieve this status, it certainly accorded itself well. This bodes well for future improvements in soil-related articles at Wikipedia.

Tech Tags:

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Come a Cropper

Gary Jones' posts over at Muck and Mystery never fail to get me thinking how the land works. Like this post where he promotes pasture over cropland. Which made me think back to an article at wikipedia about the paleopedological record that had wow-ed me recently:

Mollisols, the major agricultural soils of the present, are unique in their geological youth, being known from the Eocene but common only from the Miocene, as grasslands evolved.

"As grasslands evolved". Think about it. Can you see the Miocene era fire pushing back the forest and grass/soil biotic community evolving to extend their advantage? The evolution of grazing and grazers that followed? The soils darkening and levels of soil biologial activity ramping up?

Soils look so different in the forests versus in the grassland. Mollisols are awesome soils, and grazing is a natural component in their formation.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Older than Dirt

Bill Gurstelle over at The Technology Underground Blog states that, having turned 50 years old today, he realizes that he is easily older than dirt. And does a fair job of proving it out, quoting John Adams on compost, posting a swell picture of compost (hmmmm. dirt.) and pointing out that compost produces fresh dirt in less time than it takes to live to be 50. I'm down with that. Happy birthday to you Bill.

Tech Tags:

Monday, March 27, 2006

Public Access to Public Data

In a development that has far reaching implications for public access to publicly funded geodata, the Guardian reported last Thursday that Tim Berners-Lee has made a speech to an Oxford University audience in which he challenged the British government to make Ordinance Survey mapping data available at no cost for Web use and

may get his wish later this year. Sir Tim Berners-Lee told an Oxford University audience last week getting "basic, raw data from Ordnance Survey" online would help build the "semantic web", which he defines as a web of data using standard formats so that relevant data can be found and processed by computers.

Berners-Lee said it may be reasonable for OS, the premier state-owned supplier of public sector information, to continue to charge for its high-resolution mapping. But even if licences were required, he added, OS should make its data open to manipulation. "I want to do something with the data, I want to be able to join it with all my other data," he said. "I want to be able to do Google Maps things to a ridiculous extent, and not limited in the way that Google Maps is."

The guest lecturer said he had discussed this with OS. "They are certainly thinking about this and studying what they can do. OS is in favour of doing the right thing for the country, as well as maintaining its existence, so I think there's a fair chance we'll find mutual agreement."

This relates to a similarly controversial subject in my State and anywhere else in the United States where individual datasets for current county coverage can cost the purchaser thousands of dollars and be encumbered with copyright restrictions and in proprietary MrSID or ESRI formats. As someone else said:
In the United States there seem to be two contradictory trends in public access to public data. On the one hand, more public data than ever before is being published on the Internet for free download. On the other hand, many public agencies ignore laws guaranteeing public access to public data, or they are providing the data in a form that renders it unusable by the public.

Roger Longhorn, Info-Dynamics Research Associates Ltd points out that
It is important to remember that, in the USA, free (no cost) access to geodata applies only to federally collected (or paid for) data. State and local government, holders of vast quantities of geodata, can (and some do) charge for access and/or exploitation of these important, typically large scale, geodata resources.

Local governments charge fees at levels that discourage innovation, throttle data dissemination, skew distribution and discourage data reuse. I don't mind paying a reasonable fee and I truly don't mind local governments recouping reasonable cost. Hundreds of dollars and in some cases, thousands of dollars, per data set is not reasonable. Consider that these same agencies and districts would have to provide this data at the cost of copying it to CD's if requested under their freedom of information requirements. The difference in charges is for timely delivery and the substantial benefits that derive from being a team player.

Yet it is unseemly for us in the United States to complain. Our nation's history supports the basic premise that "one of the reasons to have a government is to have good map data" available to the public. Post-9/11 security concerns have clouded the issue but (as analyzed in this pdf)have not changed the fundamentals.

Rapid developments in the UK and UE will encourage those in the USA working to make publicly funded data more freely available, and less encumbered with restrictive copyrights and proprietary formats. What goes around, comes around.

Complementing open geodata efforts is the open source geospatial technologies movement. The newly formed Open Source Geospatial Foundation (discussed here, here and here) will develop the standards needed for open source to advance. I hope both movements, open source and open data, do well. On both sides of the Atlantic.

Tech Tags:

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Missoula Soil Science Consultant Speaks

Tell someone you are a soil scientist and it invariably requires an explanation of what you do. It's interesting that few of us do the same things and the telling of it reveals much about the person as well as the community they serve. For that reason I like to collect other folks' descriptions of their work. Certainly the telling of Barry Dutton's life work stands among my favorites because he built his business from scratch in a particularly cost-conscious region. He did it largely without the benefit of the 2 main drivers of regional soil consulting booms: booming suburban sprawl and booming energy prices driving increased well drilling and surface mining for coal and oil shale. I've heard several iterations of Barry's telling over the years and look forward to future installments.

Barry Dutton consults out of Missoula, Montana for PBS&J which purchased his company last year. Barry addressed the June 14, 2004 National Cooperative Soil Survey Western Regional Conference in Jackson, Wyoming (pdf source):

I was asked to review what private soil scientists are up to these days and will use my own company to illustrate. I started Land and Water Consulting Inc. 25 years ago and now have 50 employees and five offices. Our staff includes soil scientists, hydrologists, botanists, wetland scientists, biologists, water rights specialists, engineers, surveyors, GIS specialists, technicians and support staff. Our wetland projects this year include wetland delineation on over 10,000 acres. We will restore over 60 wetlands impacted by ski area and golf course development. We will design several dozen wetland mitigation projects and will monitor over 100 wetland projects constructed as mitigation for highway project impacts.

Our vegetation projects this year include several thousand acres of vegetation mapping for EIS studies, vegetation management plans for ski areas, and vegetation TES inventories for project sites. We will also conduct weed and riparian area inventories on private, state, and federal lands.

Our streambank and shoreline projects include restoration along hundred of miles of streams and lakes. We are working on removing a 100 year old dam on a large river within the largest superfund site in the country. This work includes channel design, wetland rehabilitation and riparian area enhancement. We will also conduct watershed analyses and implement TMDLs (Total Maximum Daily Loads) for dozens of streams.

I do a lot of expert witness work and soil survey often has a role in the cases. My oldest case has been going on for over 30 years and the focus is the definition of Peat. The 1911 Soil Survey got it right in describing the site as “high organic content silt loam.” However, the 1959 soil survey called the site peat. The owner sold the “peat” and has been arguing over the definition of peat ever since with the peat miner who purchased it. In another expert witness case, a friendly NRCS soil scientist tried to do a county planner and a developer a favor and produce a wetland map. Unfortunately this person had insufficient training in wetland delineation. The developer filled up to the wetland line and built a parking area before the ---- hit the fan. He spent $250,000 on lawyers, experts, fines and restoration activities to correct his mistakes and is now considering sending NRCS the bill. I am also involved each year in a half-dozen wet basement lawsuits and in almost every case there is a soil survey covering the site that predicted the problem if anyone had known or taken the time to look.

We are also involved in numerous reclamation projects for mine sites, pipelines and other projects. If you want to evaluate soil survey accuracy there is nothing like a 300 milelong pipeline trench across the landscape.

Likely because a longer litany wouldn't add any value, Barry didn't mention several other areas: his extensive work with water use efficiency for irrigation districts, his work instructing health district personnel on soil features relevant to septic systems and his work mapping soils but using project specific approaches that describing would only have distracted NCSS audience from his core message:

The decline of the soil survey program is leading the decline of the soil survey profession.

This is a powerful statement to lay on NCSS, the keepers of the national soil survey program. I plan on discussing it further.

Barry Dutton's message is also at the core of the brand of concern for soil science survival that I was dismissive of at the end of my previous post, a position based on observing the ever increasing demand for consulting soil scientists. Speak with Barry, as I did this afternoon, and you will find his concern is not waning despite his considerable business success and despite the high demand for his individual services. I am reevaluating my position and will present it in a future post. Certainly we soil scientists have the work but without academe, without soil survey sufficient to maintain our critical mass, won't what we do continue to be parceled out among the other disciplines? Any comments on this issue would be most appreciated.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Smithsonian soil exhibit

Soils:Worlds Underfoot

From TroutGrrrl @ Science and Sarcasm:

The Smithsonian Institution, the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA), and others are planning a 5,000 square foot soil exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. The projected opening for the “Soils:Worlds Underfoot,” exhibit, is 2008. The exhibit will occupy one entire hall of the museum and will be displayed for 1.5 years. It will feature state soil monoliths and interactive soil displays. Each of the 50 states and three U.S. territories will donate a monolith of their state soil for the display. A separate mobile exhibit will travel to hundreds of museums, schools, and libraries with soil education kits, web-based activities, curriculum, and career information.

The exhibit is expected to require 2+ years for the Smithsonian to design, build and install. Sponsored by the SSSA, the final decision about exhibit building, design, and content rests with the host: Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. The total cost is projected to be $4 million.

The exhibit will emphasize the living, biological nature of soils, the variation in soils from one region or locality to another, the dynamic nature of soil, the role soil plays in linking the earth's air, land and water resources, and the importance of taking care of our non-renewable soil resources.

This exhibit is welcomed with enthusiasm by soil scientists. It would be at any time, but now, when soil science is at the cross roads and with soil scientists keyed up about the profession, it is even more so.

Many soil scientists are asking if the profession can survive another generation. Soil science departments continue to close up shop, as they have been for 20 years. Soil science is being dismembered and parts allocated to engineering or agricultural disciplines. Retiring soil scientists in academe are not being replaced. USDA-NRCS soil scientist hiring is essentially frozen despite the fact that NRCS does not have the manpower to fulfill its soil mapping commitments. Without soil science graduates, and without jobs to attract them, my profession appears doomed. SSSA membership growth has leveled off, and reversed in 2005. SSSA Journal publishing revenues are under assault by the growing movement toward open access, depriving SSSA of revenues needed to combat the trend.

It may surprise some that I believe our profession is very healthy and is experiencing a most welcome transition. Soil scientists working for the federal government, agriculture or academe may be looking at a shrinking pool, but try to find a consulting soil scientist outside of these areas that is not working 50 and 60 and more hours a week.

Look at the fundamental need for the science. Recent discoveries about microbial diversity, glomalin and amazonian dark earth have occurred at a time when carbon sequestration (pdf), atmospheric CO2 fertilization effects and climate change have reminded folks that the complex role of soils is too important for reliance on second-hand information, simplistic models and large scale county soil map data. We need the soil scientists themselves, not just their research papers and their maps.

Open-access (OA) to published scientific articles may threaten our scientific institutions, but is healthy for the sciences and the individual scientists. OA opens up participation to a much larger scientific community, gaining more dynamic interaction and collegiality than it loses in the area of peer-review. Researchers are attracted to publish open access because OA papers are cited more than restricted access papers. Open access to research data will do more to prevent the recent rash of scientific misconduct than peer review alone can accomplish and at essentially no cost. Replacing peer-review with review-by-many looks increasingly workable. Supporters note that Watson and Crick's paper on the structure of DNA was published without the benefit peer-review.

The soil science licensing phenomenon continues to grow within the United States. The movement is now well established at a state level. Growth is mostly because of a pattern of septic system failure due to poorly understood soil dynamics. The growth of soil science licensing is in step with insurance premium growth for Health Districts to cover their septic system failures. Regions with the most failure have the most enthusiasm for licensing.

Whereas membership in the SSSA has peaked for now, membership growth in the National Society of Consulting Soil Scientists is growing steadily. Job offers for soil scientist positions with private sector environmental consulting firms and health districts now surpass job opportunities in agriculture, academe or the federal government. This indicates a healthy recognition of the role of soil science in dealing with all sustainable land use issues, not just those involving agriculture, range and forestry.

This is a time of great change for the profession, and great opportunity to advance the science.

Tech Tags:

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Why folks choose a career in science

Robert Samuelson (Newsweek) has an article about the much touted knowledge gap. But it is what Samuelson said about why people choose a career in science that rang most true:

Only about 4 percent of the U.S. workforce consists of scientists and engineers. Having an adequate supply depends on what thousands—not millions—of smart college students decide every year to do with their lives. People choose a career partly because it suits their interests. This applies especially to science. "Physics is like sex," the physicist Richard Feynman famously quipped. "Sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it."
Tech Tags:

Toronto Star reports on terra preta and terra mulata

The Toronto Star has a news article on my current favorite soil subject: terra preta do Indio. It highlights some important nuances. Terra mulata, the lighter type of terra preta, covers much more area than the celebrated black type central to the concept of terra preta. Terra mulata was probably used for farming. Terra preta proper formed from kitchen middens and may, or may not, have been used for home gardens.

Both types have bio-char, and the term terra preta do Indio applies to both. Am I correct in thinking that terra preta proper can be expected to have been infuenced by bones and excrement, but not so with the terra mulata? I am on alert as to the need to distinguish potential soil perfomance differences between the two types.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Carbon Coalition Against Global Warming

The Carbon Coalition Against Global Warming says that the best way to combat Global Warming is to encourage farmers to cultivate deep-rooted perennial grass species and crops that can lock vast amounts of carbon up in the soil.

A new farmers’ movement was launched this week in central western New South Wales. The Carbon Coalition was launched at the Central West Conservation Farmers Association Annual Conference in Wellington.

The Carbon Coalition aims to promote organic carbon contained in agricultural soils as a carbon sink to earn tradable credits on the greenhouse emissions market.

Farmers would then be paid up to AUS$3,000 per hectare for “sequestering” carbon in the soil. To date only forests have been recognised as tradable for carbon credits.
Maybe. I have a little heartburn over an expectation that the scientific community has promoted that leads us to believe that we can create a significant, persistent sink of carbon by using established farming and forestry approaches. The signal-to-noise ratio in applicable soil carbon sequestration data seems quite high low, especially in regards to a convincing ability to actually "lock in" the soil carbon sunk in the sink. I wouldn't feel so uncomfortable if there wasn't so much money at stake. Governments and carbon generating industries seem very eager to act with little in the way of verification. Landowners, ever strapped by a system seemingly stacked against the food and fiber producer, see a key tool for economic survival. Fundamental soil science and biology get relegated to the back seat while folks work out the international carbon credit and payment mechanisms.

At the front end, soil will naturally sequester more carbon as atmospheric carbon increases. Yet no one seems to talk about measuring performance against this moving baseline. At the back end, considering
the millenial timescale relevant to climate change, persistence is a very real issue.

As mentioned, I have a little heartbun about carbon credit mechanisms, but not a huge amount at this point. Work in the area of ammending soil with bio-char and, separately or in combination with bio-char, promoting mycorrhyzal fungi to produce glomalin seem both very promising in terms of the fundamental science. Both are fairly recent discoveries with huge implications. Hopefully we have a few more rabbits to pull out of the living soil hat.

Georgia acts to honor their red clay

Most states have recognized official soils. Georgia may be the first in designating an official state dirt:

HB 1443 - Red clay; Georgia's official dirt; designate

A BILL to be entitled an Act to amend Article 3 of Chapter 3 of Title 50 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, relating to state symbols, so as to designate Georgia red clay as Georgia's official dirt; to repeal conflicting laws; and for other purposes.
It is tempting to poke fun at this diversion but many others (Improbable Research, No1ofConsequence and Scribal Terror.), all faster on the draw than me, have already developed this fertile territory.

Let me instead point out the obvious positives, if this passes. First, no taxes will be increased. Second, no rights will be diminished. Third, no pockets will be lined. In any state, not just Georgia, any one of these legislative feats is a noteworthy accomplishment. Fourth, it is an opportunity to engage in self-deprecating humour, which, in my opinion is one of the essential ingredients for preserving mental health. That Georgia would do this greatly increases my confidence in this legislative body.

Before I give my fifth reason, I offer these excerpts describing red clay:

"I curse the red clay,'' says Santiago. "They have it in Florida but it's not as bad. And I've been to Texas with the [baseball] teams I've worked with but it's not as bad as anything around here.'' Other parts of the country do have red clay. But it dominates the landscape of no other region as it does the Piedmont, that rolling plain between the mountains and the sea - extending from Alabama to New York.

"It is a striking fact of the landscape,'' says Al Stuart, professor of geography at UNC Charlotte.

It is even more than that.

Red clay is the ground of our being, the material that has shaped, nurtured and sustained us. So different from the dark gumbo soil of the Mississippi Delta or the yellow sands of the Carolinas coast, it has produced crops, provided building material for schools, houses, churches and factories and shaped our sense of ourselves in ways large and small.

Embedded in our history, it is the soil "as red as blood'' described by John Lawson, who in 1700 was one of the first Europeans to explore the land; the stuff Catawba Indian women fashioned into their distinctive stamped pottery; the material spit from the wheels of the first race drivers' cars on the sport's earliest dirt tracks; gluey enough when wet to pull the shoe off your foot.

Thomas Wolfe's character Oliver Gant takes a train from Pennsylvania to Altamont, Wolfe's fictionalized hometown of Asheville. Gant stares out from the train window at "the fallow unworked earth, the great raw lift of the Piedmont, the muddy red clay roads and the slattern people.'' The novelist drew a parallel between the raw land and the untidy people, seeing the prospects dim for each. But Wolfe was wrong.

The Piedmont became prosperous, an ironic result of the poor growing qualities of red clay. "Because the soil wasn't very forgiving there's always been a sense among Piedmonters that we had to try harder ..."

In some places it goes down 100 feet before bedrock. Geologists and soil experts call it an "ultisol,'' soil formed over billions of years.
Piedmont red clay truly deserves to be recognized as the implacable force that it is. A state government seems like the perfect size jurisdiction to act on this responsibility. Thank you Georgia.

Side note. Georgia red clay soil characteristics have quite a bit in common with Amazonian oxisols and ultisols. They are acidic and low in fertility. The Piedmont soils in Georgia would benefit from a innovative Amazonian soil ammendment, bio-char, mentioned earlier. It is fortuitous that Eprida, a biomass processing concern, has its bio-char pilot plant in Georgia.

MPOG - Microbial Prospection for Oil and Gas

Microbial Prospectation looks for anomolies in microbial populations. The presence of various groups of methane-, propane- and butane-oxidizing micro-organisms can reliably differentiate between prospective and non-prospective areas, as well as between oil and gas reservoirs. The result of many years of exerience, the success rate exceeds 90%. This stand-alone approach is inexpensive, probably benefiting from recent computational improvements in characterizing microbial genetic characteristics. Makes you wonder what other benefits will accrue from these types of advances.

Read more at Microbial Prospection and Recovery for Oil and Gas

Tip from: OilNetCom Blog

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Where are the soil science jobs?

SimplyHired 's Google Map mashup makes it handy to map demand for consulting soil scientists in the USA. A narrow search shows the hottest demand to be currently in a narrow band along the urbanized eastern seaboard and in the Seattle WA area. Why is that?

Broadening the search criteria to reflect a soil science preference (versus requirement) shows a familiar and heartening scatter distribution from coast-to-coast. Recent openings in the Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles areas are prominent, confirming that big city jobs beckon at this level also. But what is with all those homeland security jobs?

Tech Tags:

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Thoughts on Peter Drucker

Consulting soil scientists generally work in separation from academia. This post pulled hard on my sense of science-business identity. On the one hand, we at SSSA and NSCSS do hold closely to Peter Drucker's position that the knowledge worker gains access to work, job and social position through formal education. Qualifying for voting membership and leadership in either soil science society requires formal education. As it should. Yet, in common with the poster, we in soil science consulting achieve and maintain our success almost entirely through informal means.

Over 10 years ago in 1994 Peter Drucker gave a lecture at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government about knowledge workers.

He starts by saying that “in the first place, the knowledge worker gains access to work, job and social position through formal education” and continues to explain the importance of formal education for becoming a knowledge worker. He emphasizes the role of formal schooling as the central gravity for new knowledge workers and that learning knowledge work cannot be achieved through apprenticeship or any other method than formal education.

I really appreciate much of the ideas presented by Mr. Drucker. He has influenced much of my own thinking, but this is something I can hardly agree on nowadays. I’m a glitch in his system, because I have achieved my social position and access to work mainly through informal means. I find it very hard to achieve my current social position through any other means than my own informal knowledge working practices. A lot of advanced level knowledge workers I know and appreciate work systematically with knowledge in informal settings.

He continues: “Increasingly, an educated person, will be someone who has learned how to learn, and throughout his or her lifetime continues to learn, especially in and out of formal education.

Spot on. In my opinion, it’s not only the role of formal education that will be central to continuous learning after preliminary education, but rather systematic working practices in networks of knowledge: informal or formal.

In formal education we still focus much of our time on learning theories without proper application. Drucker says that “in the knowledge society, knowledge basically exists only in application” and that “knowledge in application is effective only when it is specialized“. While formal education mainly teaches us to be generalists by just requiring us to pass a certain designated level of “good enough”, in knowledge society leadership will concentrate around specialists who have acquired additional specialized skills that have importance in application. The only way to acquire those skills is to have the passion for learning and to deeply explore new territories with other people

I agree thoroughly with this last point. Soil science consultants need to become aware of the issues surrounding open access (OA) to scientific knowledge. Our effectiveness and our growth depend on it. In closing, I think we should recognize the considerable advances made (and continuing) at the SSSAJ to balance the benefits of OA with the need for revenue sufficient to support publishing.

URL: OA update to Peter Drucker
[from: Open Access News]

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Scientific mystery of terra preta closer to being solved

The scientific mystery of the Amazonian anthropogenic dark earth (anthrosols) referred to variously in Portuguese as Terra Mulata and Terra Preta do Indio (Indian Dark Earth) is closer to being solved. The intricate recipe used for producing these fertile soils has been the object of longstanding scientific curiosity.

An important factor, highlighted in the latest news release on the subject, is the use of slash-and-char techniques versus slash-and-burn:

Whereas slash-and-burn methods use open fires to reduce biomass to ash, slash-and-char uses low-intensity smoldering fires covered with dirt and straw, for example, which partially exclude oxygen.

[Update: Back40 (Muck and Mystery) pulls in some quite interesting notes and comments on soil+char.]

Tech Tags:

Friday, February 17, 2006

Where are all the soil science bloggers?

It's time to play a game! Where are all the soil science bloggers? Are soil scientists genetically inclined to dislike the nontechnical nature of the blogosphere? Or are we being discriminated against by our colleagues in the earth sciences?

Where are all the soil science bloggers? Here's the list.

Soil Scientists who blog

At the UWA: The Soil Science Journal Club
...a resource for people interested in recent advances in Soil Science in all its guises...

Orangepoop's Dirt Girl
Decomposition of the socio-political element. Live from Washington D.C.

Soil Artist/Jay Noller's Soil Body
It is all about our relationship to the biologically active layer of Earth - Soil
(...posting again after 10 month hiatus: worth waiting for...)

Honorable Mention

Doctor Dirt's As the Yarn Turns
Sweeny_Todd's LiveJournal
dr_dirt's LiveJournal
come-along-fool's LiveJournal

Special Mention – enthusiasts who track soil science blogs

Back40's Muck and Mystery
John Gay's Sustainable Ag Website

Attribution to greengabbro for the intro, parodied above.

[Updated: January 09, 2007]

Tech Tags:

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Deadly soil-borne hookworm may have met its match

This UPI article is inspiring. Appreciate the dedication of the subject and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for supporting this work.

Peter Hotez has spearheaded a 25-year fight to eradicate hookworm, and 12 other neglected diseases, illnesses of the poor and powerless. These ailments bear frightening names such as leishmaniasis, human African trypanosomiasis and schistosomiasis. Some are vector-borne diseases, spread through animals or mosquitoes, others are bacterial, and many more are caused by worm infections.
"When you work on a neglected disease, you're neglected by your scientific colleagues. It's hard to be taken seriously sometimes," Hotez says.
"He's the ideal scientist -- someone who is honest, works hard, and is passionate about what he is doing," says H.R. Shepherd, the chairman of the Sabin Institute who has known Peter for almost 10 years.
Hotez is developing the world's first hookworm vaccine, now in Phase 1 trials, and he'll know for sure if it works by 2011.
The above excerpts were rearranged a tad.

Dilution is the solution to pollution

Land treatment of industrial waste water can save energy. Mechanical aeration for treatment demands large quantities of electrical power. In land treatment, this is replaced by passive aeration. The energy cost reduction can be well in excess of the payments needed to purchase the land. A disadvantage of land application of waste waste is that it can contribute to ground water salinity.
Crops and soil treatment do little to remove mineral salinity from applied waters. How much salinity in ground water is too much? Salinity doesn't threaten health as much as it taints taste. This creates a dilemma. Environmental regulators are challenged to defend enforcement limits based on aesthetics with the same vigor as criteria based on human health. They are particularly challenged when the industries contributing to groundwater salinity are valued employers contributing to rural economies. But defend water quality standards they must.
Salt load in land applied waste water is considered by many to be the single most important challenge facing the industries which use land application to treat waste water. Particularly sensitive to this issue are briners, cheese processors and some electronics manufacturers. Among waste water spray field management advisers the consensus is that saline waste water spray field operations should avoid sites where the discharge can't be diluted by substantial rainfall and/or groundwater flux. In short, dilution is the only practical solution when it comes to salts in waste water. If the operation is located in an area that does not enjoy the benefits of natural dilution, the brine portion of the waste water stream can be segregated and transported to an area that does. Not an easy task but not unprecedented. A municipal waste water treatment plant discharging to a substantial body of water is a logical choice for receiving the brine.
These comments are prompted by a news article today in the Sacramento Bee (free registration required): Hilmar faces more pollution rules. Cheese factory agrees to give water quality board more authority.
[follow-up comment from Chris Bowman, Sac-Bee: The brine collected from the reverse osmosis filters is hauled to an East Bay MUD treatment plant.]

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Grazing tool for managing riparian buffers

A Capital Press article (subscription) by Doug Warnock promotes grazing in riparian buffer areas, saying:

When grazed properly, forage plants in the riparian zone can be stimulated to re-grow and contribute greatly to the health of the ecosystem.
The grazing process helps break up capped soil...
Up until a few months ago I was enthusiastic about preserving soil crusts. Some reasoned criticism of this perspective has helped moderate my opinion.
... stimulates the incorporation of plant tissue into the soil resulting in increased organic matter and the animals add minerals to the soil. It also helps control the growth of woody plants, which can shade out desirable grasses and forbs that hold the soil on stream banks and filter out soil particles during high water periods. Grazing animals can also be effective in controlling undesirable plants, if grazed at the proper time.
By excluding this tool (grazing), other tools must be used in to manage the property and most of them are more costly. Herbicides to control weeds, and equipment to cut back brush and trees require out-of-pocket expenditures. Still, probably the most important benefit from grazing is the stimulation of the growth of the grasses and forbs by the removal of part of the plants’ stems and leaves.
The key, in all of this, is to not allow the grazing animals unlimited access to the riparian zone, so that they are kept from overgrazing the plants.
This all makes good sense and the article goes on to line out the tools available to make it happen. In comparison, the common regulatory default position of universally excluding the total sum of all excludable activity from all riparian buffer areas appears a convenient stop gap rather than a reasoned construct.

Orange ooze gives clues for those in the know.

If you walk your property with an eye to understanding how it works, knowing what orange ooze is and what it means is a worthy skill. Orange ooze forms where anaerobic waters seep from the ground. This can be a good and natural thing, as in the image.
Reduced iron (Fe(II)) is a source of energy for life, including iron-oxidizing bacteria. The oxidized iron gives orange ooze its distinctive color. Another distinctive feature of anaerobic waters is a surface sheen, reminiscent in appearance of an oil sheen, but brittle.
Anaerobic waters form for specific reasons.
Unfortunately, one reason is contamination. A classic source of Fe(II) laden waters are acidified drain waters associated with mining and industrial wastes. Other reasons are septic systems, waste water lagoons and land fill leachate. Fuel leaking from a transfer line is a classic source. Any substance that can be rapidly decomposed by microbial activity, even a benign dust control product like lignin sulfonate, can result in anaerobic groundwater if concentrated by runoff in a roadside ditch.
Anaerobic groundwater formation is usually natural. Examples are flows through wetland conditions (as in the image) and through pond bottoms. In natural cases, orange ooze relates to elevated microbial activity. This biological activity usually needs a temperature above 41 degrees F (5 decrees C) and an adequate food supply to support microbial respiration in excess of oxygen supplies.
Now look closely at the image. Notice the greenest vegetation is in the band of water with the anaerobic sheen, parallel, and below the orange ooze. That is because the seep water is warmer than the surface water it is flowing into, stimulating a difference in plant growth. The elevation of the orange ooze shows the anaerobic water is dropping into the stream. Not shown is that it is on only one side of the stream and only along a limited stretch. This gives important clues as to where to look for the source, in this case wetland conditions in the pasture adjoining the stream. The warmth of the seep indicates that the hydrology supporting wetland living conditions is not localized winter precipitation and snow melt, but has deeper, less seasonal, origins.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

My field season begins...

...with soil sampling at a waste water irrigated hay field. The study site has high gravel content which is farly well sorted due to the action of glacial age Missoula floods. In the picture, the AMS tile probe helps locate high gravel content areas to avoid sampling. The AMS mud bucket auger has wide-set teeth that accommodates the smaller gravels. The 0.25 inch screen helps reduce the sample for shipping. The screen also aids in mixing the sample prior to reduction.

Soil scientists required in Pennsylvania for septic system permits

Soil scientists at work. In many states, professional soil scientists conduct the septic system site assessments required for permit approval. Soil scientists also get involved in adapting alternative on-site disposal technologies. This brief newspaper interview with Leonard Cornish, owner of Pocono Soil and Environmental Consulting Inc., Wilkes-Barre, PA reveals some of the basic scientific and technical requirements needed in this type of a business. The news article should be of particular interest to soil scientists considering going into the business of environmental consulting or individuals looking to hire on with a soil scientist owned business.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Hans Jenny's Birthday

Tomorrow, February 7th, is the birthday of Hans Jenny. An amazing man, his simple observations often inspired deep insights in his friends. I recently came across an 1984 interview with Hans Jenny and highly recommend it to you. Here is an excerpt:

Soil appeals to my senses. I like to dig in it and work it with my hands. I enjoy doing the soil texture feel test with my fingers or kneading a clay soil, which is a short step from ceramics or sculpture. Soil has a pleasant smell. I like to sit on the bare, sun-drenched ground and take in the fragrance of the soil. ...Soil profile art...resembles abstract art. ...Soil speaks to us through the colors and sculptures of its profile, thereby revealing its personality; we acknowledge it by giving the soil a name.
From: Jenny, Hans and Kevin Stuart, "My Friend, the Soil", Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, May-June, 1984, pp. 158-161.

Tech Tags:

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Farm tile drainage progressing rapidly (II)

As mentioned here earlier, farm tile drainage is being linked to accelerated wetland loss in Minnesota. A meeting held Saturday, February 5, to discuss wetland loss drew a crowd of 300. One person testified that “99 - 100%” of the wetlands in his county were now gone. Details are reported in the St. Paul MN Pioneer Press article with the headline: “Get tough to protect wetlands, group says”. Reading the tone of the reporting, it confirms my earlier impresssion that the majority of the wetland loss is considered to be due to draining uplands adjacent to wetlands. My read (see pdf addressing MN wetland regs) is that this is normally a legal undertaking. Installing drain tile within a wetland would not be legal. This foreseeable cause of wetland loss, due to activities outside of wetlands, seems to have caught wetland advocates without a workable strategy.

Dry lab fraud alleged

Have you taken soil samples and tested soils to determine the level of plant available nutrients in the soil?

Question No. 1, page 12, Self-Assessment Workbook (pdf)

Most soil lab procedures involve wet chemistry. Dry lab results, in the vernacular, are made-up results, place-holders if you will. Sometimes they serve a legitimate purpose. Dry labbing with the intent to deceive for monetary gain is fraud. This is apparently what USDA-NRCS is accusing 15 unnamed eastern Washington farmers of when they self-qualified for monetary awards under the Conservation Security Program. CSP participants in the top tier receive up to $45,000 per year for a 10 year period for the most environmentally conscious farms. Reading both the linked Seattle P-I article and the original Spokesman-Review article, (subscription required) it looks like a few farmers fabricated a history of soil sampling and lab analysis in order to qualify. The good news is that 131 farmers audited came up clean.

For other CSP news, see also:
Capital Press article (subscription required): “CSP losing momentum”
Delta Farm Press
article: “USDA announces cut in CSP watersheds in 2006”