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."
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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?

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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.]

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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]

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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.

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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”

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Precise common sense II

Elton Robinson expands nicely on the previous post by email:

The variable-rate application of inputs is actually well developed and prospering in Mid-South cotton fields. It works for two reasons. One, we have highly variable soils along the Mississippi River Delta, which in turn creates variable yields. Second, the cotton crop demands intense in-season management for plant growth, insects, weed management, disease and harvest preparation.

Infrared aerial photography and electrical conductivity mapping carts can pick up the variation in soil type when the ground is bare and pick up plant biomass when the crop is growing. Geo-referenced maps generated from the imagery allow the farmer to vary applications of plant growth regulator, defoliants and other inputs during the season based on variability in biomass. For example, the poor-yielding parts of the field will receive less plant growth regulator to allow plants to catch up with the better-yielding parts of the field, which in turn will receiver more plant growth regulator, to prevent vegetative growth. The result is higher yield and lower cost.

The cost to the farmer for the imagery, and variable-rate prescription is $7 per acre. Sprayers can be adapted for variable rate applications for $6,000. The cost of producing cotton is about $500 an acre. A conservative savings in input costs of 10 percent plus a 5 percent increase in yield would put $65 an acre in the farmer’s pocket. If he farms 1,000 acres of cotton, that $65,000, more than enough to pay off the cost of the technology in year one.

The technology is not affordable if there is little variability in the soil, or if a crop (corn, soybeans) does not respond as well to in-season management. I did read your previous blog on VR nitrogen, and agree that it's been very difficult for researchers to show a benefit.