Monday, December 31, 2007

Video: The Soil Underground

You girls are so slimy
You ain't even dirt
leaf litter and trash
mixed with animal turf-t

They sing you songs
take you into their room-s
but when you done
you won't be nothing but humus

Hey E, you just jealous
and you vusted you mouth
you ain't even a rest stop
on the mineral road south

I'm tired of being thought of
as a bleached out buffer
just cause I'm white
don't mean I don't suffer

Now I don't get no sleep
living under you boys
and I don't get more stout
every time the rain pours

My dad was a loess
met my mom in compaction
I was doing just fine
until elluvial action

E! you best watch your mouth
and you best keep your distance
or you'll be cryoturbated
out of existence

Babies don't waste your time
on that bleached out horizon
right here is the brother
you best lay your eyes on

Friday, November 02, 2007

Why is HIV so prevalent in Africa?

... asks Melinda Wenner. Geographer Harold Foster is convinced that it is due to low soil selenium levels. Selenium is mobile, prone to leaching as well as accumulation. Health-wise, it is one of the more interesting elements. Reputed to be an immune system stimulant, yet it is notorious for accumulating in plants and soil to a toxic degree.

Sub-Saharan Africa, with 96 percent of all AIDS cases, has a wide variety of soil types (see soil map provided) but which generally have low soil selenium.

Senegal has a significantly lower level of AIDS infection than the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. It also has uncommonly high soil selenium.

Foster's most recent article is pay walled by Elsevier, but the
abstract is certainly intriguing:

The global diffusion pattern of HIV/AIDS is strongly suggestive of a protective role for the trace element selenium. It is hypothesized here that the body's antioxidant defense system, especially the selenoenzyme glutathione peroxidase, acts as an initial defense against viral infection, preceding the formation of antibodies. [emphasis added] For this reason, HIV is having its greatest difficulty in infecting those with diets elevated in amino acids and the trace element selenium which, when eaten together, stimulate the body's production of glutathione peroxidase.
One selenium link to AIDS is well established: A low selenium blood level of selenium among HIV/AIDS infected patients is associated with high AIDS-related mortality. Foster has been writing about this for some time in terms of treatment.
Since this virus encodes for glutathione peroxidase, as it replicates it deprives its host of selenium, cysteine, glutamine and tryptophan, eventually causing severe deficiencies of each in HIV-1 seropositive individuals. AIDS is the end product of these declines and the majority of its symptoms are caused by these deficiencies. Selenium and cysteine inadequacies, for example, undermine the immune system in a process that is accelerated by other infectious pathogens. A deficiency of glutamine promotes muscle wasting and digestive malfunction, while a lack of tryptophan and the compounds it biosynthesizes (such as niacin and serotonin) causes dermatitis, diarrhea and various neurologic and psychiatric symptoms including dementia. It is also clear from the literature that supplementation relieves these symptoms and would, therefore, appear to be the most logical treatment for AIDS. The major aim of this treatment would be to return body levels of selenium, cysteine, glutamine and tryptophan to normal. The evidence suggests that this would greatly reduce HIV-1's ability to replicate. Doses, therefore, would vary with the disease stage. It also is probable that niacin and serotonin would prove beneficial.
One double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial has solidly confirmed the ability of 200 micrograms (μg) a day of bioavailable selenium to significantly affect viral load among AIDS patients. That is certainly good news and confirms selenium as a viable treatment.

Foster has now advanced beyond treatment into an area likely to be far more controversial: He is saying that, in low selenium soil regions, dietary selenium can reduce the risk of infection and rate of spread of the AIDS virus between individuals. The world hopes that he is correct.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

La Paz Loses Yakima Case

Little La Paz County, AZ, has failed at great cost in putting biosolids drier Yakima Company out of business. Jim Willett, owner, told me years ago about the bizarre goings on that precipitated his 2004 claim for damages of $20M, the amount he would lose over a 25 year period as a result of the County terminating its contract. The contract was for providing space for the drying operation, and to secure additional space for future expansion in exchange for a $/ton fee. The contract encouraged volume and, in hopes of generating County revenues as quickly as possible, the County allowed Jim to start operations on condition of working up a closure plan and bonding for the closure costs. Then something went sour, and the county stalled beyond reason their acceptance of first the plan and then the bonding. When they did accept, they didn't inform Jim.

It was a pretty simple business model: truck the solids in from LA, lay it out thin and dry it in the wind and sun, windrow it to finesse stabilization, pick it up and truck the now Class A fertilizer-esque material a few miles back to California to needy farmers. With the right combo of clients, farmers, and truckers, it was clean, simple, satisfying, and profitable in what can be a complex, and low margin business.

Last week a La Paz County jury awarded Jim $9.2M plus legal expenses. Jim regrets the process and takes no joy in the results. It is not the life, and not the legacy, that he wanted.

The local rag has posted several articles on the trial (1, 2, 3). The newspaper, which gamely supports comments on articles, was unprepared for the outpouring of vigorous support for the jurors courageous decision, and the level of outrage directed towards the County Board of Supervisors for their mismanagement of political power. The paper clearly slants its writing in support of the BoS, adding to the intensity of the backlash. The editor, John Gutekunst, selectively deletes comments but even at that the longest set of comments now prints out to 33 pages even when ported to Word in 10font.

According to comments, the County's $1.5 million in legal fees are not covered by insurance, and the County determined this early on in the process. Comments characterize the legal effort as a personal vendetta against Jim by Supervisor Gene Fisher. This vendetta included asking the sheriff to arrest Jim's clients at the drier site for trespassing on County property, and coaching employees against their better judgment to the point that one County employee quit their job. Word gets out fast on that type of work place abuse. Tossing aside the potential of $1-200K/yr in much needed tax free revenue for personal reasons has added to local dissatisfaction.

Despite a lack of public support, or financial capacity, it is clear that the County will appeal. A reinvigorated recall effort is mounting to pull the plug on this monster.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Redox Cascade

This chart (click for a readable version) shows shows the cascading preference of electron acceptors needed to sustain microbial respiration. When a soil system runs out of oxygen, it relies on nitrate (denitrification) to accept the electrons freed by respiration, and so forth down the cascade. Not shown at the bottom of the cascade is the production of hydrogen from water, but then that is an extreme seldom achieved in nature. The units for Eh are millivolts, the standard measure of redox potential.

An equivalent measure of redox potential is pE. Just as pH is the negative log of the hydrion activity, pE is the negative log of electron activity (source). Soil pE and soil pH are equally important to predicting charge state of metals and nutrients. However, because measuring pH is relatively easier by far, and because knowing pH tells us volumes about expected pE, soil pE is a less discussed subject. It is important to bioremediation, industrial chemistry, and wetland science. Not a household term.

These two are more than a mirror pair, although mirroring is their most notable characteristic. When pH changes, pE must also change in response. The reverse is true also. In soil, that response departs from simple mirroring. So much so that it can seem to be two separate dances.

Soil pH and pE have different causes of change and different effective buffering agents. The term 'buffering' is replaced in a pE context - it is called poise. A stabilized soil pE system is referred to as a well poised system, differences in soil buffering versus soil poise account for the departure from 1:1 mirroring.

Now for the exciting stuff. To many of us, what makes soil different than geologic material is that it is in an excited state, excited mostly by solar energy as facilitated by living processes. Unlike soil pH, soil pE is directly influenced by these energy fluxes.

The most influential cause of changes in soil pE is metabolic respiration aka oxidation. Oxidation doesn't necessarily involve oxygen. Oxidation does necessarily involve shedding an electron. Thus, respiring living systems lower the pE of a soil system, and with pE in the dance lead, pH must follow.
Wetlands are low pE systems, wetlands with hydrogen sulphide odors are very low pE systems. Common dryland agricultural crops, like wheat, cannot abide low pE systems. Rice is adapted to low pE conditions.

A well recognized soil buffering agent is lime, which buffers a soil to about pH 8.2. The major agent of soil poise is iron. By all rights, the chart should show iron as having the longest duration horizontal line: there is a vast amount of iron in soil compared to nitrate and manganese. However soil manganese, although far less abundant than iron, plays a more important, more dynamic role in most soil systems.

One soil scientist, Richmond Bartlett, was so taken with the importance of manganese in this regard that he opened his chapter on manganese in a 1995 soil chemistry text (1995, Environmental Soil Chemistry, edited by Don Sparks) with the phrase “We all should fall upon our knees and sing out praise for manganese”
Richmond Bartlett goes on to describe the role of manganese in terms that nearly describe a catalyst. Mn is not consumed, and the capacity for metabolic respiration increases in its presence.

This is sheer speculation on my part: from my view through the knothole, the nearly catalytic nature of traces of Mn is a finessing touch that makes bio-char the wonderful soil reef it is. It is a fine point, and one hardly worth mentioning considering the much more important issues that need working out in our pursuit of Wim Sombroek's vision for terra preta nova.

Expanded from information originally posted on the terra preta forum.

Sunnyside Wetland

One of my projects made the front page of the Yakima newspaper. Since the paper tends to paywall these things in short order, I thought the blog would make a handy archive.

The picture here is from the project site. The retaining wall in the picture was placed by the county in order to keep the road apron from impacting what was presumed from USFWS-NWI reconnaisance mapping to be a jurisdiction wetland. That mapping plus the observed standing water and the wetland vegetation seemed to the county to be proof positive that clearing the land was a violation of the county critical areas code. It wasn't.

Published on Monday, September 10, 2007

County learns lessons from fight with farmer

SUNNYSIDE -- Don Young didn't think his neighbor's irrigation water leaking into his property should qualify it as wetland, and after a yearlong fight, Yakima County agreed with him.

The saga, which Young documented in a meticulous inch-thick file he says makes him feel like an attorney, cost him about $6,000 by his count and kept him from using the land until last month. It also forced county leaders to rethink the way they apply the county's Critical Areas Ordinance. The ordinance, which has been under review for five years and is nearly finished, still will be enforced as mandated by state law, county Public Services Director Vern Redifer said.

"But where you can construe the law in the favor of property owners, we'll construe it that way," he said.

That's good news to Young, a self-described "stubborn old farmer" who believes he might not have prevailed in his dispute if he hadn't had the money for a consultant to make his case.

"This is a story that needs to be told, not for my benefit but for the taxpayers and the public," the 73-year-old retired rancher said.

The whole thing began when a county road crew spotted Young pulling up vegetation on the edge of his property. The county issued a cease-and-desist order in May 2006, about seven months after Young bought the 4-acre property south of Sunnyside. To his thinking, the Russian olive trees and other vegetation he removed were just trash like the piles of tires and garbage that were also on the property.

Thinking he was actually improving the land, Young took umbrage to the county's order, which included the possibility of $1,000-a-day fines.

"Nobody ever said anything about it being a wetland," he said.

He also didn't like the way county staff treated him when he disputed the matter. It was clear enough to Young that the land in question wasn't a wetland because the only source of water was the neighbor's irrigation runoff, or what his hired consultant labeled "water trespass." But he couldn't get the county to see it that way.

"The heading of their letter is 'public services,'" Young said. "I told them they need to change that, because there is no way in this world that they are serving the public."

The county's opinion on the matter didn't change until Young received a report he'd commissioned on the matter by wetlands delineation expert Phil Small of Spokane. Small's report, written after a visit to the property during which he drilled holes to measure groundwater levels, found there was no source of water other than the irrigation runoff. The county considered it a persuasive argument and in a July 31 letter lifted the cease-and-
desist order.

"What I want to know," Young said, "is why didn't the county have to hire him to prove it was a wetland instead of me having to hire him to prove it's not."

In the county staff's defense, the property did have signs of being a wetland, such as reeds, bulrushes and the Russian olive trees, Redifer said. The staff was simply following its procedures as laid out in its own policy and didn't err in that regard, he said.

County officials tried to work with Young along the way, planning manager Steve Erickson said. But the county's suggestion that Young "wait and see" if his property was a wetland based on whether groundwater returned even without irrigation runoff didn't fit into Young's schedule, Erickson said. That meant Young had to hire his consultant to force the issue, but that was up to him, Erickson said.

Where things might have been done differently, and will be in the future, is in the way county staff deals with people in such disputes, Redifer said.

Comparing it to baseball, in which "ties go to the runner," he said if there are questions about whether to act on a possible wetland scenario like Young's, the landowner will be "the runner." That is in line with the Yakima County Commissioners philosophy of a more user-friendly Critical Areas Ordinance application, which they have espoused during deliberations on the ordinance.

Staff also might call people in the future or knock on their doors, rather than sending formal letters specifying possible fines.

"I think (the letter) made him feel like a big lawbreaker, and that certainly wasn't the intent," Redifer said.

"That's another lesson learned -- how we go about engaging someone with a potential violation," Erickson added.

While he would be happy to see such changes, Young still isn't sure the county has done right by him. He's contemplating filing a claim to recoup the money he spent fighting the initial ruling. In the meantime, though, he's working the land for the first time in about a year.

He's put manure down and hopes to have the whole thing seeded for pasture by the end of September.

"I lost the production of that land for a year already," he said. "Over a year."

* Pat Muir can be reached at 577-7693 or

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Agrichar trials in NSW

News and commentary on agrichar is flowing steadily this spring, first with the reporting on the 1st annual Agrichar Conference, and now with the reporting on initial agrichar trials by the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries (NSW DPI). Particularly encouraging is that the sophistication of the comments continues on the increase.

from ABC' Discovery channel ...

Recent greenhouse trials found soils mixed with the charred waste, called agrichar or biochar, were more attractive to worms and helpful microbes.

Agrichars trialled by NSW DPI include those from poultry litter, cattle feedlot waste as well as municipal green waste and paper mill sludge. Each agrichar has its own characteristics and interacts differently with different soil types.

Some agrichars raise soil pH at about one-third the rate of lime, raise calcium and reduce aluminium toxicity.

Kimber said more research needs to be done on working out which agrichars are best for which soils and on the impact of any contamination in biomass.

... reinforce the need for local pyrolysis pilot projects. The pyrolysis pilot hurdle is necessary where widespread agrichar use is the goal. Clean air concerns combines with the limited supply of local expertise and experience needed to achieve the low-temperature pyrolysis ideal for producing agrichar.

I have
submitted comments emphasizing the need for pilot agrichar projects to our State's climate change folks.

(AP image source)

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Agrichar: In the news May 15th

Two short articles well worth the read for terra preta enthusiasts:

Carbon project raises hopes: Waikato Times, NZ:

...Structural biologist Alfred Harris, process engineer Wolfgang Weinzetll and two Tauranga entrepreneurs are involved in Ecotechnology Ltd, which is working to reduce fertiliser use without hampering plant growth. The company is investigating producing a charcoal product from forestry and other organic waste which collects unwanted nutrients...

Recent work by Australian researchers showed wheat gained an additional $A96 per hectare in value when charcoal was banded in the soil with mineral fertilisers.

Is banded C the killerapp for agrichar? I don't know what the charcoal application rate was, but last I knew, banding equipment had limited material application capacity, charcoal is low density, and there was mineral fertilizer in the hopper also. A charcoal application rate in the neighborhood of about 100 lbs per acre seems reasonable to expect. At $100/ton for charcoal, material cost would be $5/acre ($A15/hectare). Is the value in comparison to a no-C comparison? I would surely like to see the research.

Seeder image source: Flickr by IRRI Images

Another May 15 article

Special Report: Inspired by Ancient Amazonians, a Plan to Convert Trash into Environmental Treasure (by Scientific American) has a great soil point-counterpoint under the heading: But is it viable? :

As with all new technologies, many questions about the ultimate utility of agrichar have yet to be answered. "As of now agrichar is not a uniform product," explains John Kimble, a retired USDA soil scientist. "And there's no easy way for farmers to apply it with existing equipment. They also need to know there is a large enough source of the material. Farmers are driven by profit, as is everyone, and they need to be shown that it will improve their bottom line."

Complicating debates about the costs of agrichar is the paucity of data on the subject. "No one is sure what types of biomass should be used as raw material," Kimble notes, "or exactly what production methods work best, so calculating the costs is really an exercise in speculation."

In addition, scientists are finding it hard to replicate the original terra preta soils. "The secret of the terra preta is not only applying charcoal and chicken manure—there must be something else," says Bruno Glaser, a soil scientist at Bayreuth University in Germany. Field trials in Amazonia using charcoal with compost or chicken manure find that crop yields decline after the third or fourth harvest. "If you use terra preta you have sustaining yields more or less constantly year after year," he says.

"I'm skeptical about adding just a pure carbon source," says Stanley Buol, a professor emeritus from the Department of Soil Science at North Carolina State University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who spent 35 years studying Amazonian soils. "It will be black and look good," but will it contain enough inorganic ions, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, essential to plant growth?"

Many of the interactions between the char, the soil and the microorganisms that develop with time and lend the soil its richness and stability are still poorly understood. Glaser believes that the key to making agrichar behave like terra preta lies in the biological behavior of the original Amazonian dark earths—a difference he attributes to their age. "You would need 50 or 100 years to get a similar combination between the stable charcoal and the ingredients," he cautions.

"I think [research into the biological behavior of terra preta] is where the new frontier will be," Lehmann counters. If he is right, and scientists can perfect a modern-day recipe for agrichar, then its fans will not need Richard Branson's $25 million to jump-start their initiative—the annual demand for fertilizers exceeds 150 million tons worldwide.
There are strong indications that soils amended with high (multiple tons/acre) rates of biochar need considerable time to reach their optimum. For setting where return on investment cycles need to be short, lower rates sustained for long periods of time may make more sense as a strategy for building soil C.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Soil conference on non-CO2 gas emissions

Researchers at the University of Melbourne are holding a conference to discuss the importance of greenhouse gas emissions from soils.

A major concern is nitrous oxide from fertilizer, manure and biomass applications.

"300 times more potent than CO2, so even small emissions of this non-CO2 gas can make a considerable contribution to global warming” says Dr Stefan Arndt.

“When nitrogen is added to a wheat field as fertilizer or added to a pasture through animal faeces or clover swards, a part of the nitrogen can be lost as nitrous oxide, and when the weather conditions are right this can lead to large emissions of nitrous oxide” says Dr Eckard.

...not widely known [is] that soils can actually [take] methane out of the atmosphere. “Forest soils are especially efficient at taking up methane” says Dr Livesley.

At the present time there is not much knowledge about the magnitude of these non-CO2 emissions...

(revised May 18, 2007:)It is interesting that non-CO2 GHGs, like nitrous dioxide (NO2), aren't more in the news, considering their potential impact and (for NO2) a fascinating pattern of anthropogenicity.

Image source: Greenhouse gases, by

edit: revised intro to N02 map - yet again as my level of understanding evolves

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Agrichar future

In a post earlier today: Mental Rut, Back40 takes Johannes Lehmann, soil scientist, and terra preta front man, to serious task for cheer leading the politically attractive aspects of TP:

Agrichar should not be crufted up with political baggage or tainted by association with the various climate hysteria inspired carbon wheezes. That it sequesters carbon in a more durable form than forests or other organic forms is a plus, but not its primary value. It is just one of the multiple benefits of agrichar. That fact should not be lost in a blaze of hype. It's the wrong message.
Back40's comments make good sense. Consider that terra preta has serious political problems in the offing. Charcoal production as a tool to combat global warming can be understandably counterintuitive. Char's mode of action in the soil is only partly understood, the degree of benefit to the soil is not well documented. Claimed char additions may be difficult to monitor.

Various blog and forum posts ask: Does the fuel value of charcoal provide a dangerous incentive to divert agrichar to fuel use? To overharvest biomass? Can the reality of terra preta nova be separated from marketing pitches by commercial pyrolysis interests?

In this environment, poor marketing choices will hurt the prospects of terra preta. We terra preta advocates need to distinguish our advocacy for improved soil from our advocacy of commercial pyrolysis and of char carbon sequestration. The value of char as a soil amendment can, and must, stand on its own merits. Only successful implementation of terra preta nova in stand alone and market driven settings can validate the fundamental benefits of biochar.

The agricultural value of charcoal is competing well with its fuel value at a market price of about $100/ton. Agrichar doesn't appear to need carbon sequestration subsidies, and at $4 a metric ton CO2, maybe it isn't even worth the paperwork.

Charcoal is fairly simple, and generally profitable to produce. The pyrolysis process used to produce char is adaptable and scalable. It can be used to co-generate heat, nitrogen fertilizer, hydrogen fuel and/or electrical power, indicating ample incentives to increase charcoal supply capacity. Rising fuel prices seem certain to increase the supply of charcoal.

The price of charcoal is driven mostly by its value as fuel. Coke, originally derived from coal to replace charcoal, cost about $100/ton in late 2006, which seems to also be about the same price as charcoal at the time. Significant quantities of charcoal are used in Japan for agriculture at these market prices.

Proponents of terra preta hope to speed adoption by subsidizing it with carbon credits. Currently CO2 sequestering goes for about $4 per metric ton on the carbon credit market. Carbon dioxide units at full molecular weight can be converted into carbon units by dividing by 44/12 (see endnotes here). Thus the carbon credit value of amending soil with charcoal is currently $14.67 per metric ton, or $13.31 per ton. This could be a nice kicker but the soil amendment value of charcoal, at $100/ton, is the significant component.

Note: Image from Flickr by carlosjwj (Location: Korogocho, Nairobe)

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Soil is a living system.

Like Snow
Originally uploaded by bones4.
Soil behavior fundamental to soil performance requires a living component. Remove the life from soil and it can be argued that what remains is no longer soil. It remains not-soil until it is reinoculated, repopulated, and restored to a living system. For all but the harshest land surfaces on our planet, soil life "reboots" faily easily.

Other names consistent with not-living "soil" are dirt, regolith, buried soil, and soil fossil. Another term, earthen material, encompasses both soil and not-soil.

An interesting discussion is whether there can be lunar soil or martian soil. While life currently appears absent, the surface of lunar and martian regolith does appear to have been sufficiently transformed by solar energy flux to qualify as a candidate soil. Since life is all about energy flux, perhaps our current concept of soil as a living system will ultimately be replaced with a concept of soil as an energized system.

Reposted from Yahoo Answers.

Simpler Way To Counter Global Warming Explained: Lock Up Carbon In Soil

The techniques of ancient American Indians who used charcoal in their soil to keep them fertile (Terra preta) are being married with modern engineering. More here:

read more | digg story

Added: I came across this story on digg and noticed the blog-it tab...

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Biofuel demand pencils out to damaged soil

Crop residue is not a waste. It is a precious commodity and essential to preserving soil quality.

Production systems must be developed so that ethanol produced must be at least C neutral if not C negative. Temptations [to mine soil vitality] aside, biofuels produced from crop residues may neither be free nor cheap.
Rattan Lal, SSSA President, has a timely message to his fellow Society members in the May issue of CSA News (regretfully subscription only). It is that we must take this opportunity to break the cycle of soil destruction that characterizes the rise and fall of civilized man. Biofuels adds unprecedented value to biomass production. Rattan Lal sketches out the numbers, comparing potential demand to crop residue available. With demand tracking above supply, the temptation is to mine the soil of its vitality. Rattan Lal observes that soil exploitation is the primary contributing factor to desertification.
Harvesting crop residues for use as fodder for livestock, residential fuel for cooking and heating, construction material, and other competing uses is a reality in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, China, and other developing countries. Therefore, it is not surprising that these are also the regions that have been plagued with severe problems of soil degradation.

With a severe decline in physical quality, degraded soils do not respond to fertilizers even if made available at a subsidized price. Adverse effects of none or low rates of applications of fertilizers and other amendments on agronomic production and soil quality have been exacerbated by the perpetual and indiscriminate removal of crop residues coupled with uncontrolled and excessive communal grazing.

The stubborn trends of low crop yields and perpetual hunger and malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa and in regions of rainfed agriculture in South Asia cannot be reversed without returning crop residues to the soil and also supplementing them with liberal applications of other biosolids.
Rattan Lal has done an admirable job in this appeal to the his fellow SSSA members. He has included constructive comment on tools and processes available to make biofuels production compatible with maintaining soil vitality. But the undercurrent message is that those of us who love soil must involve ourselves in the process, the policy, and the public discussion of our transition to sustainable energy.

Leave comment or email me if you would like to request a copy of Rattan Lal's May address. Or better yet, join SSSA.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Carbon Sequestration for Farm, Forest Income

The New York Times has an article about selling carbon credit through the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX).:

An acre of pine forest captures and holds one to two metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, which it uses for photosynthesis. Untilled cropland holds a third of a ton of carbon per acre, and rangeland holds up to a fifth of a ton. The sequestered carbon dioxide is measured by soil tests before and after the planting.

Carbon dioxide credits now sell for about $4 a metric ton. Mandatory restrictions, experts say, could increase the price to $12 or higher. In Europe, the cost of a credit sold for sequestering carbon dioxide has reached $20, and even $30, a ton.
The market for carbon credits seems to hover between $3 and $4. A review of past CCX newsletters reveals sporadic volume, with common fluctuations of $0.50 to $0.75 per metric ton per month. The New York Times article suggests that biological sequestration will ultimately be replaced with geological sequestration. Expectations of sustaining $20 or $30 a ton seem unrealistic.

$3-$4 is far better than the $0.25 that the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington received for forested land in the 1990s.

The Tri-Societies' science policy blog has a post about Farming Carbon:
Currently, farmers who wish to profit from the sequestration potential of their soils can sell carbon credits on the (CCX).
Science is needed to better quantify the carbon flux and carbon sinks.
At present, aggregators don't attempt to gauge the carbon impact of individual farms nor do they quantify counterbalancing emissions of traces gases. Hopefully, ASA/CSSA/SSSA members can play a constructive role in the CCX, providing the scientific basis on which aggregators will improve their climate accounting.
I would like to see more discussion on the nuts and bolts of accounting and verification.

Flickr Source: George sampling 3/2/07 ESA Common

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Agri Char Conference Reviews

Agri-char aka bio-char is the key ingredient in soil scientists' holy grail, terra preta nova (my previous mention). Initial reports from participants at the first meeting of the International Agrichar Initiative indicate continued hope that agrichar amended soils could contribute significantly to our planet's health and productivity.

Kelpie Wilson, Truthout's environment editor, writes:

Charcoal's pores also make excellent habitat for a variety of soil microorganisms and fungi. Think of a coral reef that provides structure and habitat for a bewildering variety of marine species. Charcoal is like a reef on a micro-scale.

Over at the Sydney Peak Oil forum, attendee burko writes:

It would be very easy to become enthusiastic about the future of these integrated technologies. However, there is one overriding impression of this field to keep in mind – it is brand, spanking new. So new that even the choice of name Agrichar is being debated. There are no books; there are few years of experience even amongst the researchers; the debates about the benefits to AGW are only just beginning.

In short, being a part of the conference could be compared to hearing an orchestra tuning up. There are skillful cellists and masterful tuba players preparing next to each other. The idea is potential for beautiful music, rather than cacophony. We aren't really sure who the conductor is yet – plenty of skillful people are taking part of that role. There is cooperation and the desire to share experience at all points – but this is a new kind of orchestra.

While the soil biology alone is a staggering subject, we should be as interested in the methods of producing the black carbon. Burko writes on pyrolysis:
The gas produced is referred to as syn gas, called producer gas sometimes.

My formative understanding of the process says something like this – if you want to produce non-activated chars, temperatures need to be constrained below the levels that gasification requires in order to make the reaction sufficiently exothermic to be self sustaining.

Of course, there is more to it than that – I did find that combustion engineers found it difficult to provide a simpler explanation.

I did get one useful figure from Dr Robert Brown, from Iowa State University – if you're burning wood in an open fire, you're probably only getting a third of the heat energy that should be possible from gasification – a pretty compelling reason to try and understand this stuff. It's been said that up to a third of the worlds deforestation happens in the name of inefficient cooking fires.
From the reports, it is clear that the number of players, and their diversity, is growing exponentially. One reason for this diversity is that the process of making terra preta nova appears to be as adaptable to a wide range of soils and climates as it is scalable. You can have regional collection and distribution approaches coexisting with processes adapted to individual enterprises. The plan at Fourth Corner Nurseries (mentioned previously) near Bellingham, WA is a great example of both points. The operation already amends the soil with char. Observed better root growth confirms what we already sense, that black carbon can have a positive effect on a wide range of soils. The nursery plan to use surplus biomass from their willow coppice field to power the nursery and to produce char is easier said than done, but is brimming with promise.

Image: Scanning electron micrograph of a conductive carbon sticky tab. (Flickr - St Stev)

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Review: Soil Health Assessment Training Manual

Cornell’s Soil Health team has completed a final version (”1st edition”) of a comprehensive “Soil Health Assessment Training Manual” (PDF).

At 59 pages, it touches on many areas of interest.

This well organized, and informative, manual has helped warm my still tepid enthusiasm for the soil health assessment movement as well as the closely related soil quality assessment movement.

The soil health assessment movement is a good hearted effort to better understand soil biology and soil function, but it is sabotaged by a dependence on simplistic numeric indexes. Since this could describe the history of the whole of soil science, it seems I have been unfair, condemning the soil health assessment movement in isolation and simply because it is new.

The Manual provides some qualifying documentation that I truly appreciate. The larger list of indices considered and the test locations used for developing the approach are described. This is important information which adds considerably to the value of the Manual. The discussion sections in support of the indicators and in support of the management options are well informed. I am gratified to see that the indices in this manual are much better suited to the challenge of assessing soil health than I have seen in past efforts. Beyond that, I was impressed with how the language used reflects an unfolding understanding of the complex interaction of soil biology, physical characteristics and chemical regimes, especially the forms of carbon involved. I get the distinctive impression that the wording is different than would have been used a year ago, and different than will be used even a year from now. For instance soil fungi is described in terms of thriving in slightly more acidic soil regimes than bacteria. In the past, that distinction would have been left out as inconsequential. In a future soil health assessment, discussion on how to manage soils to enhance beneficial fungi and, later, assessing soils for the presence of beneficial fungi would be natural advancements.

This Manual is a regional and cropping-system specific in nature. It describes "soil constraints and soil quality issues common to soils in New York and the Northeast region, especially in vegetable and field crop production systems." The defined focus frees it from the generalizations that limit broader assessment approaches. At the same time it provides a provides a structure for those interested in applying a soil health assessment approach in other areas.

Users of the Manual send soil samples and data sheets to Cornell's laboratory for analysis and interpretation. The training provided through the Manual is in support of gathering field data and in understanding the resulting report from Cornell.

It will be difficult for self-directed individuals to use the Manual as a resource to delve deeper into some of the assessment techniques. Take for instance, the root health rating. This involves germinating bean seeds in the sampled soil and observing the developed roots for indications of damage by pathogens. No specific references are provided in support of readers seeking to better inform themselves on this approach.

My criticisms of the manual are minor. I highly recommend anybody interested in soil quality, soil health, soil assessment, and soil function download the Manual as a PDF and treat yourselves to at least a quick thumb through.

Blog sources that announced the Manual: Lori Bushway, Molly Day

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Triclosan Update

I've posted on my concern for triclosan-containing products before. I think far too much of it is being land applied in our biosolids:

It makes little sense to land apply recalcitrant compounds that needlessly get rid of soil microbes. Fomenting the growth of resistant strains of disease organisms is only one concern. Soil functional capacity is largely mediated by living processes. It is the height of folly to jeopardize those functions for a useless consumer item.
How much effect does it have on biosolids-applied soil? Probably it is only slight at any given site. It is the total mass involved and the extent of the impact that has me uncomfortable.

Being soil-aware, I have also come to appreciate that our skin, like soil, hosts a diverse population of bacteria that when in balance, works in our favor. Part of our disease protection comes from that community. If we kill off the easy ones, we are left with the toughs who can now move into the colonization sites left vacant. That's how it works on the skin of the earth, anyway. I'm not saying that we should avoid washing our hands, just that acting on simplistic thinking can expose us to risks greater than the ones we act to avoid.

For example, the latest concern with triclosan use is that when exposed to warm (100 deg F) tap water containing chlorine, a common scenario for use, it breaks down after less than a minute of exposure. The breakdown products include chemicals of concern to skin care including chloroform. This may better explain reports that triclosan-containing products induce dry skin, eczema, and, under conditions of high use (20-25 times per day), open sores. Open sores and a tough crowd of bacteria is not a good combination.

This observed rapid breakdown of triclosan does not negate previous observations of recalcitrance in the treatment process, in the soil, and in our waterways. The wastewater treatment processes that produce biosolids do not employ chlorine, or any equivalent chemical oxidizing agent. To shock the process with chlorine would kill the bugs doing the work.

I am sure there are some good uses for triclosan. Maybe a place in the acne control tool box is one. The majority of this product is sold for normal household use. The casual use of triclosan needs to end.

Image Source: Neil Duazo

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Forgive me faithful blog-readers, it has been 2 weeks since my last post. You are probably wondering if, now that it is day-light-savings time, if I will again drop off the face of the blogging earth until Holloween as happened in 2006. Its a good bet that my posts be much thinner from here on out, but I will do my best to post once a week.

March and April are treacherous months for time management. My corporate taxes are due March 15th. The garden and yard are waking up.

March and April are where several core client report due dates fall. It is also the opening bell of the wetland hydrology growing season, when, for a 2 week window, wetland delineations are much simpler (and cost effective) to document, especially in the irrigated arid West. Once our extensive and leaky system of irrigation canals fill in April, normal hydrology can be overwhelmed. And without the steady high water of spring thaw, hyporheic hydrology sufficient to support plant life adapted to saturated soil conditions has to be established using secondary indicators. Away from the streams and river, our xeric (aka Mediterranean) climate makes the first 2 weeks of the growing season the wettest.

The new Arid West Supplement (see here) to the 1987 Wetland Delineation Manual came into play in January, giving those of us who delineate wetlands something new to work with. It is more soil oriented, moving emphasis from hydric soil criteria to the more complex, regional system of field indicators of hydric soils (see here), which should make our field reviews even more interesting.

Client activity wakes up at this time of the year, and the phone starts ringing with new work for the summer.

This is also the first 60 days after I get back from the annual meeting of the National Society of Consulting Soil Scientists (NSCSS), with its invigorated interaction between members and affiliated societies.

NSCSS is affiliated with the US Consortium of Soil Science Associations (USCSSA), and I have offered to help revamp USCSSA's soil science consultant listings. As with several of my NSCSS side projects, I am posting my notes on how to go about this at NSCSS' new wiki leaving the door open for peer collaboration.

The topper on the schedule is that wife Rosemary has courageously taken on becoming superintendent for the clubhouse of the Woman's Club of Spokane. No one else in the Woman's Club lives in the 'hood where the clubhouse sits, which seems quite ludicrous. The clubhouse is a hundred year old, 10K SF public meeting facility only a block from our house. It is on every historic register available. It anchors the spirit of the place for blocks around, making it far more important to our quality of life than is understood by the Woman's Club members, or at least the current leadership. The club is rented out for dancing, weddings and such. It has two kitchens, a dining room, and three halls with two stages. The club haven't had a designated super for two years, and the building has suffered from this and other lapses of longer standing. I am spending these first weeks of her tenure helping Rosemary figure out how the place "works", since the club has let their corporate memory drift as to what's where and why. Much fun is being had by all. I feel much better now that we have figured out where the water shut off is.

Final note. The City of Spokane spans the Spokane River cataracts, using a series of 7 bridges to straddle the gorge and tie the city center together. Right now the water is running high, so Rosemary and I wandered down to listen to the roaring.

Monday, March 05, 2007

GeoAgro soil data collector

I just got back from the 20th Annual Meeting of the NSCSS in San Antonio, TX. Ed DiPollina, TekConsultants, was one of the presenters, and I was very impressed with the potential for a product his company is bringing to market, the GeoAgro Soil Data Collector. Designed for field soil scientists like myself, the Soil Data Collector helps us log soil profile descriptions and geo-reference our field notations, map features & test pit locations in the field on a Tablet PC.

I saw many NSCSS soil scientists sign on as beta testers. Considering the varied applications that field soils data is applied to, this is surely going to be an interesting process.

Similar field data solutions are available to government soil scientists (Pedon PC software was presented to us by USDA-NRCS in San Antonio), but the GeoAgro Soil Data Collector is the first one geared to consulting field soil scientists, arguably a larger and faster growing market than represented by government soil scientists.

It struck me during Ed DiPollina's presentation that the GIS and GPS portion of these types of products is becoming more of a commodity, with the forms and data entry portion holding the interest of the San Antonio audience.

Unlike similar solutions geared to institutional needs, this product will be affordable for the small business to enter into. This is not always a given since GIS solutions vary wildly in price relative to the value provided. If you are already using a GIS product like ESRI's ArcView (ESRI is the world leader in GIS software), no problem, the Soil Data Collector has the ability to export and import different types of files, such as shape, drawing and spreadsheet formats, along with substantial GIS functionality. Don't already have a GIS solution? A simplified non-ESRI solution is being provided.

Speaking of ESRI, affordable alternatives to ESRI products are on the rise. If you are already a locked into being a customer of ESRI, or you are a status quo driven public institution, this will not matter to you. A growing number of us are not. We constitute a market that ESRI has pointedly chosen, through proprietary file formatting and opportunistic pricing, not to serve. I don't fault ESRI for choosing a captive market business model. Its a legit choice. Unfortunately for ESRI, and ultimately ESRI's customers, it is difficult model to adapt to changing market conditions. If the monopolistic aspects of ESRI have escaped you, consider. GIS solutions are simple, ubiquitous, data processing solutions for publicly available georeferenced data. The algorithms used to project the data into only 2 dimensions were constructed long ago by federal agencies using public funds. The math and the data are both freely available to everyone. ESRI doesn't add value to data in the classic meaning of value, it locks it into a proprietary format and holds it for ransom.

A captive market business model smothers the necessity to innovate. Over at competitor Manifold System GIS, several sub$1K solutions are optimized for multiple core CPUs and 64 bit processing. This has been available since August, 2006. ESRI has yet to announce when they intend to provide multi-core or 64 bit functionality, even at the >$120K level. Some generally similar observations about ESRI: (1) (2) (3)

ESRI's loosening grip on the lead and a general increase in GIS software choice and capability are helping to bring innovators like TekConsultants onto the playing field.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Hypography Science Forum Upgrades Terra Preta Discussion

The Hypography Science Forum has upgraded the terra preta discussion from a long, 43 page thread to a forum, with separate threads for charcoal making, gardening experiences, news, etc. The new location is here.

A recent message posted to the forum, from Janice Thies, Cornell University, is most interesting:

I am extremely heartened by the very positive response to the idea of using of biochar in agriculture and horticulture and appreciate your desires to put it to immediate beneficial use in these systems.

My name is Janice Thies. I am a soil microbial ecologist. I have been working with Johannes Lehmann at Cornell University for the past 6 years on various aspects of terra preta (microbial ecology in its natural state) and agrichar (how microbial populations respond to adding biochar to soil). It took us three years to convince the National Science Foundation that we were on to something here and to obtain funding for some of the basic research that is necessary for us to provide the data needed to answer your questions with confidence. Hence, we are several years behind where we could have been if funding had been available earlier. Even now, we continue to seek support for doing the types of tests many of you are most interested in. The results of our NSF funded research are just now being published or written up, but we are still a long way from being able to answer everything.

Currently, there are 10 research laboratories around the world that are testing char made from bamboo that was prepared at 5 different temperatures in the range we believe is likely to provide char that will be most beneficial for both plant production and C sequestration purposes. Rob Flannigan prepared the char in China and has engaged us all to do a wide range of testing on it. So, we should have some news about what temperature range might be best reasonably soon, but it is still early days.
Bio-char amended plots respond more favorably if adequate nitrogen fertilizer is provided. This is consistent with a previous observation here that added nitrogen is desirable when increasing soil microbial biomass.

One of the reasons that Dr. Lehmann recommends caution in the use of biochar can be seen in the paper recently published by Christoph Steiner et al., mentioned in previous messages. He did get excellent plant growth responses to adding biochar - as long as mineral fertilizer was also used. When you look at plant growth in the biochar only treatment, growth was worse than doing nothing at all (check plots). In the nutrient-poor and highly leached soils of the tropics, the added biochar likely bound whatever nutrients were present in the soil solution and these became unavailable for plant uptake. These results should make you cautious as well. How fertile a soil needs to be for biochar not to reduce plant growth or exactly how much fertilizer and/or compost should be added to be sure there is good, sustained release of nutrients, will likely vary soil to soil and we simply do not have these data available at present to make proper recommendations. So, keep this in mind as you do your own trials with your own soils or mixes. Try to follow good design practices for your trials, with replicates, so that you can judge for yourself what amount and type of biochar works best in combination with what amounts and types of fertilizers or composts you use (depending on the philosophy behind your cultural practices).
The soil microbial community in terra preta is different from that of surrounding soils, yet is repeatable over great distances. Actinomycetes bacteria seem to have a particular affinity for terra preta.

As to the 'wee beasties' or 'critters' as I like to call them, we have made progress on this front over the last several years. Brendan O'Neill and Julie Grossman in my laboratory, Sui Mai Tsai, our Brazilian collaborator at CENA and the University of Sao Paulo, and Biqing Liang, and many others in Johannes Lehmann's laboratory have been characterizing microbial populations in three different terra preta soils and comparing these to the adjacent, unmodified soils near by to them. Brendan found that populations of culturable bacteria and fungi are higher in the terra preta soils, as compared to the unmodified soils, in all cases. Yet, Biqing found that the respiratory activity of these populations is lower (see Liang et al., 2006), even when fresh organic matter is added. This alone means that the turnover of organic matter is slower in the terra preta soils - suggesting that the presence of black C in the terra pretas is helping to stabilize labile organic matter and is itself not turning over in the short term. All good news for C sequestration. However, since the respiratory activity is lower (slower decomposition), this may lead to slower release of other mineral nutrient associated with the fresh organic inputs. In some circumstances this is a good thing (maintaining nutrient release over the growing season), in other circumstances (more immobilization), perhaps not. We need more work on this to understand the implications of these results more fully.

Julie Grossman, Brendan O'Neill, Lauren McPhillips and Dr. Tsai have all been working on the molecular ecology of these soils along with me. So far, what we know is that both bacterial and fungal communities differ strongly between the terra pretas and the unmodified soils, but that the populations are similar between the terra preta soils. These results are both interesting and encouraging. First, that the terra preta soils (sampled from sites many kilometers apart) are more similar to each other than to their closest unmodified soil (sampled within 500 m) tells us that the conditions in the terra pretas encourage the colonization of these soils by similar groups of organisms that are adapted them. Our group has been working on cloning and sequencing both isolates from the terra preta soils and DNA extracted directly from them. A number of bacteria that were isolated only from the terra preta soils are related to the actinomycetes, but have not yet been described yet and are not very closely related to other sequences of known organisms in the public genetic databases. This is also very interesting. Some of you will know that actinomycetes have many unusual metabolic capabilities and can degrade a very wide range of substrates. Also, many are thermophilic and play important roles in the composting process. We have yet to fully characterize these organisms, but are optimistic that in time we can make some recommendations about what organisms or combinations of organisms might make a good inoculant for container-based biochar use. Two papers describing these results are in their final editing stages and will be submitted for publication in the journal 'Microbial Ecology' within the next few weeks. So, keep an eye out for them in several months time.
The prospect that glomalin might play an important role in terra preta needs to be approached with caution.

I want to add a word of caution about getting too excited about glomalin. Another of my students, Daniel Clune, has been working on this topic and his work suggests that the glycoprotein referred to as 'glomalin' in the literature - operationally defined as the protein extractable in a citrate buffer with repeated autoclaving - is not what it has been purported to be. First, the proteins extractable by this method are from a wide range of sources, not just arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. Second, it has a shorter turnover time than has been suggested. Third, in a test with hundreds of samples taken from field trials varying in age from 7 to 12 to 34 years, its relationship with aggregate stability is suggestive at best. Dan's work is also being written up right now and should also be submitted for publication soon.
Could archaea be important?

Some field trials with bamboo char have been conducted in China, with very positive results. Look for upcoming papers from Dr. Zheng of the Bamboo Institute in Hangzhou. Another student in my laboratory, Hongyan Jin, is working with the soils from this experiment to characterize the abundance, activity and diversity of the soil bacteria and archaea. Her first results will be presented at the upcoming conference on Agrichar to be held in Terrigal, NSW, Australia, at the end of April/beginning of May this year. Please be sure to see her poster should you attend this conference.
Janice's recipe for char based potting soil:

Lastly, from my personal gardening experiences, I use spent charcoal from the filters of the 14 aquaria I maintain for my viewing pleasure. I combine it as about 5% of my mix with 65% peat moss, 10% vermicompost (from my worm bin in my basement where I compost all my household kitchen waste - aged and stabilized, not fresh!), 5-10% leaf mulch (composted on my leafy property in NY), 5-7% perlite to increase drainage, decrease bulk density and improve water retention and percolation, and some bone meal and blood meal (to taste :-) ). This makes an excellent potting mix for my indoor 'forest'. I am very much still playing around with this.

I hope this very long posting helps those of you feeling frustrated and wanting answers. Many labs are working on many fronts, but it is early days and we are trying to answer some fundamental questions first and then use the information to guide our field tests and recommendations.

I hope to meet some of you at the Agrichar Conference (see details at the conference website)
The Cornell work and that of many of our colleagues in Brazil, China, the US, Australia and elsewhere will be presented, along with that of many others actively working on agrichar production and use around the world.

Good luck with your own testing and kind regards,

Janice Thies - jet25 at
719 Bradfield Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Soil Collapse Conditions Illegal, Preventable

In the previous post, Don't Dig Too Deep, I wrote of the alarming extent of death and injury related to soil collapse. Historically there have been 100-300 deaths a year in the US due to soil collapse. One would hope that the current level is far lower, since these deaths are preventable, and the conditions that cause them are largely illegal to send workers into. News coverage of trench collapse is often cavalier when it reports survival, celebrating a can-do attitude and sidestepping a duty to inform. News readers deserve to be told how extensive the problem is, industry standards, or how they can take simple steps to avoid future injury to themselves and their loved ones.

Injuries that occur in the workplace deserve to be covered in the news from the point of view of compliance and employer ethics. All news coverage I have ever seen on these tragic work-related events leave off the preventable and illegal aspects of the event. The story in Georgia that prompted my post was no different.

Jordan Barab has been posting on this issue with the news media: trench collapse should not be treated this lightly; most workers do not come out alive.

Soil collapse is quiet and quick. Soil goes from supported to free fall in an instant. A collapse event initiates with little or no warning to a trench occupant. It is loudest at the end of the collapse event, yet seldom heard beyond the immediate area of the trench. Unless it is witnessed directly, or the victim can make themselves heard, a rising cloud of dust is the only evidence available to alert coworkers to respond.

A discrete soil collapse event is normally progressive in nature. First an uppermost portion of a trench wall caves off, and drops straight down like a slice off a block. When I am in a trench, even a shallow one, I am ever vigilant for this first increment. Falling from the maximum height it is moving fairly fast by the time it reaches the trench bottom. In injury events, it typically traps the feet and prevents trench egress. The collapse progresses to involve soil volumes coming from further down the wall and further back: lower velocity but far more weight and volume than the first increment. The progression commonly ends with a maximum increment.

This leaves remaining vertical wall sections unsupported at the margins of the collapse. Subsequent collapse of these vertical sections is a substantial hazard for rescue workers. 60 percent of fatalities in trench rescues involve would-be rescuers.

OSHA standards require trenches deeper than 5 feet to be shored. Shallower trenches can still be the site of fatal soil collapse, especially if workers are not standing upright. Movable temporary shoring is available within the construction industry. An alternative is to excavate sloping or terraced sidewalls. Due to vibration, heavy equipment should not be left running in proximity to occupied trenches. Interior trench corners are particularly susceptible to collapse and deserve particular caution.

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Don't Dig Too Deep

Historically, there have been between 100 and 300 people killed in the United States every year due to trench collapses. Jordan Barab covers these trench hazards in his worker safety blog, Confined Space.

On Friday, a worker in Georgia was trapped for two hours, briefly up to his neck, when the trench he was working in collapsed. Last word was that he survived, but the extent of his internal injuries had not been assessed. He is in my prayers.

It is a strong man, and lucky to boot, able to breathe under the crushing dead weight of soil. When soil drops, it quickly gains sufficient momentum to slam the air out of most folks. Against the weight of soil, there can be no place to expand the lungs.
Even a person buried below his chest may still be grave danger. Where the soil reaches the diaphragm level, and settles in a form that has pushed the abdominal contents into the chest cavity, the effect on breathing can be the same as confining the chest.

Soil walls may collapse multiple times, or in phases, in the same trench. 60 percent of fatalities in trench rescues involve would-be rescuers. Soil collapse related deaths are both work-related and recreation-related, and all too often include children. The beach is a repeated setting of concern (from a story apparently no longer up at WebMD):

Safety Note for Beachcombers: Don't Dig Too Deep

Sand Holes Collapse, Suffocate Toddlers, Children, Even Adults

By Jeanie Davis
WebMD Medical News

Reviewed by Dr. Jacqueline Brooks

April 17, 2001 -- Sharks, skin cancer, drowning -- was a day at the beach ever a picnic? What's left, just digging holes in the sand? Maybe not. With beach season drawing nearer, two researchers report that several children -- and young adults -- have died when sand holes got a bit too deep and suddenly collapsed on them.

“There actually is the potential for catastrophe," says Bradley A. Maron, a second-year medical student at Brown University School of Medicine in Providence, R.I. The paper, which he co-authored with his father, Barry J. Maron, MD, of the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, appears in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association.

In their paper, the Marons document seven cases of sudden- and near-death experiences involving beach holes.

The Marons' study began four years ago -- during a vacation at Martha's Vineyard -- when they witnessed a beach-hole incident that triggered their study of the phenomenon. "It was an 8-year-old girl, under the sand for seven minutes before rescuers could get to her," he tells WebMD. She survived, says the younger Maron.

He spoke with the beach rescue team afterward: "They said without question it seems to happen with greater frequency than is realized," Maron tells WebMD. He began watching CNN for similar news accounts and made follow-up phone calls for details.

Six of the seven incidents he documented since 1997 took place on public beaches -- all on the Atlantic coast -- mostly involving children, says Maron. In five cases, the holes were being dug by hand or using toy beach shovels. In two instances, people were inside holes they had found.

In each instance, Maron says, the person suddenly became completely submerged by sand when the walls of the excavation unexpectedly collapsed.

"The biggest complication in rescue efforts," Maron tells WebMD, "is that the sand appears undisturbed after the hole caves in, so rescuers don't know exactly where the person is. And they have to dig with their hands, for fear of hurting them with shovels. They just can't get to them in time." Four people among the cases were submerged for long periods of time -- 15 minutes to an hour -- and could not be resuscitated.

In one case, a 21-year-old man vacationing in North Carolina dug a nine-foot-deep hole. "He was down in the hole, just lounging in the chair when suddenly and unexpectedly it collapsed on him," says Maron. "It was catastrophic immediately. He had to be removed by bulldozer." Rescuers attempted CPR, but the man died.

Three people survived -- including one who experienced hypothermia and shock -- after lifeguards or other bystanders frantically dug an air pocket around their mouths and noses.

"Parents feel safe with their kids right by their side," Maron tells WebMD. "But they may not be attuned to what's going on. And afterward, people are so shameful of themselves. Of course it's not their fault; it's an accident, but it's absolutely preventable. It just takes common sense."

This phenomenon was news to at least one beach rescue team member, but he's not surprised.

"A lot of times you see kids digging up to waist deep, and that can be just as hazardous as head-deep," says Sean Gibson, a paramedic with New Hanover Regional Medical Center, which services the beaches in Wilmington, N.C.

"A cubic foot of sand weighs much more than you would think, and there's no way that child could get out," he tells WebMD. "And nobody would be able to hear that child either."

Adults should know better than to take the risk, says Gibson. And parents should be watching their children more closely. But if children do get into this situation, here's good news. "With toddlers and children, you should be able to get to them fairly quickly if you see it happening."

Although sand dunes don't exactly fall under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's jurisdiction, OSHA certainly recognizes trenches of all shapes and sizes as hazards, says H. Berrien Zettler, deputy director for construction.

OSHA has investigated 24 fatalities resulting from cave-ins in the last year alone, he tells WebMD. "It's a serious issue. People don't realize that dirt, or sand for that matter, is extremely heavy. It makes it impossible for people to exercise their abdominal muscles to draw in air; essentially, they suffocate."

The sheer weight of sand causes the collapse, says Zettler. "And people don't have to be completely covered with it to suffocate. Chest deep could be enough to do it -- you just can't draw air. If you're sitting down, it takes even less -- just two or three feet of sand -- to cover your chest."

Although wet sand looks hard, it's actually extremely unstable, because nothing is holding it together, says Zettler. "There's no cohesion like you find in clay soil. You dig into it, and it's like a liquid."

Be careful out there. Keep an eye on our children.

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Rejuvenating Soil Life Requires Patience

Soil data is "noisy" data. Being a difficult medium to observe and measure, soil has an almost weird capacity to mask change.

In several instances that I can recall, it seemed improvement in soil carbon status was not evident until several years after a change in management was made. The increases in soil organic matter called intervening data into question.

You can see similar data fluctuations due to individual samplers, but this delayed stepping pattern of carbon increase happens a little too often to ignore. It is as if the momentum for an increase in carbon must first collect in the biological dynamic of the soil, invisible to our simple agricultural analysis tools where we measure TKN, TOC and C:N ratios. Those were my thoughts as I read the following:

The Four Phases of No-Till

Phase one, initialization, occurs in the first five years. It is where soil structure starts to improve and microbial activity increases. Additional nitrogen is required to do that.

"As organic matter increases, you need the added nitrogen to make more of it," Towery said.

The second phase is transition from the fifth to tenth years. This is when organic matter accumulates, soil aggregation and soil microbial activity elevates, phosphorous accumulates, and nitrogen immobilization and greater mineralization occurs.

Phase three is consolidation, from 11 to 20 years. In this period, carbon accumulates and additional water is available in the soil. Further nitrogen mineralization and immobilization occurs and there is an increase in cation exchange capacity (CEC) and nutrient cycling.

"These years aren't perhaps exact, because this phase depends on your latitude and your soils," Towery said.

The fourth and final phase is maintenance, which comes after 20 years. It brings a continuous flow of nitrogen and carbon, greater availability of water and high nutrient cycling with increases in nitrogen and phosphorus.

"Twenty years is a long time. It's not like you've arrived at the Promised Land but things do change with the soil," Towery said. "It's because it is a dynamic system. The technology and management strategies you use changes over time as you go from phase to phase.

"One change we underestimate is the changes in soil biology. We can't see them but they're there."

Photo: No-Till Milo in Wheat Stubble

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