Thursday, January 25, 2007

Teaming with Microbes Arrived Today

My anticipated copy of "Teaming with Microbes" has arrived. While I can't comment on the full text with any authority yet, I can say that it is well organized and has an extensive index (8 pages). It pleased me no end to see "soil science 28 - 42". There is also a valuable guide to labs and suppliers (4 pages). A supplier of mycorhhizal fungi here in Spokane is going to be getting a new customer.

My current soil obsession, bio-char, the foundational ingredient in terra preta nova, is disappointingly not mentioned. I have gotten the impression that Elaine Ingham, who has achieved demi-goddess standing in soil-web circles, was unswervingly skeptical of charcoal in large volumes as a soil amendment at the time the book went to publication, so I am not particularly surprised. In the post I saw, she based her concern on charcoal's high C:N ration putting soils out of balance. I'm chalking this up to fear of the unfamiliar. Too bad. Elaine Ingham is highly influential. When she comes around, her endorsement will save lives.

My restaurateur grandfather had a personal test to see if a chef was up to his standards: if the butter dish arrived without ice, he lowered his expectation that anything else could be properly prepared. I make similar menu-wide judgements on my orders of eggs-over-easy and chile rellenos. My acid test for an elightened organic gardening book is the treatment of glomalin (recalcitrant mycorhhizal fungally produced glycoprotein that accounts for 1/3 of world soil carbon). It is mentioned on page 37 (see familiar glomalin photo on page 39), so things are looking up at this point.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

NRCS Assessment of US Land Use, Erosion, Wetlands

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has posted results of their Natural Resources Inventory (NRI). Depicted are land cover and use, soil erosion, and wetland gains or losses for the 48 contiguous United States.

From 1977 to 1997, NRCS conducted the assessment every five years, in 2000, they began the transition to an annual assessment. The most recent data is from 2003 and reflects only conditions at that point, NRCS Chief, Arlen Lancaster says, "This is a snapshot, this is the number in terms of cropland, this is where we're at in terms of erosion," he says later this year they will be able to provide numbers that reflect the change from year-to-year.

Some findings:

  1. The 48 contiguous states cover 1.9 billion acres and 71% of that, 1.4 billion is in non-Federal rural land uses. Of that 1.4 billion acres, 406 million is in forest land, 405 million is rangeland and 368 million is cropland.
  2. Cropland acreage decreased 12% from 1982 to 2003. The net decline between 1997 and 2003 was 8 million acres, or about 2 percent.
  3. Soil erosion on U.S. cropland decreased 43% from 1982 to 2003.
  4. In 1982, 40% of all cropland was eroding above soil loss tolerance rates, that number declined to 28% in 2003.
  5. Erosion rates on a per acre basis declined significantly between 1982 and 2003. Sheet and rill erosion on cropland dropped from 4.0 tons per acre per year in 1982 to 2.6 tons per acre per year in 2003; wind erosion rates dropped from 3.3 to 2.1 tons per acre per year.
  6. There was a net gain in wetland acres on non-Federal rural lands between 1997 and 2003. Annual net gains between 2001 and 2003 were 72,000 acres per year, of which 44,000 acres per year were on agricultural lands.

The 2003 results look fairly encouraging. Erosion continued down. There was a net gain in wetland acres coming substantially from agricultural lands and a moderated trend of farmland loss. It fits with what I was seeing on the ground in those years. 2004, 2005 and 2006 might not be as good as 2001 - 2003. Funding for soil conservation and especially wetland construction was tighter after 2003. This was also at a time when tiling was on the increase, as I reported earlier. The farmland loss rate probably regained some steam with development activity. Any comments?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Scoop on Dirt (A Review)

Last September, E/The Environmental Magazine, published The Scoop On Dirt: Why We Should all Worship the Ground We Walk On by Tamsyn Jones. It is beautifully written, but settles into a tired view of soil. As a soil scientist, it irks me that this essay flubs the opportunity to celebrate the unfolding understanding of this dark and patient resource. An expectation of higher aspirations is created by the title and the opening prose.

It’s one of nature’s most perfect contradictions: a substance that is ubiquitous but unseen; humble but essential; surprisingly strong but profoundly fragile. It nurtures life and death; undergirds cities, forests and oceans; and feeds all terrestrial life on Earth. It is a substance few people understand and most take for granted. Yet, it is arguably one of Earth’s most critical natural resources—and humans, quite literally, owe to it their very existence.

From the food we eat to the clothes we wear to the air we breathe, humanity depends upon the dirt beneath our feet. Gardeners understand this intuitively; to them, the saying “cherish the soil” is gospel. But for the better part of society, dirt barely gets a sideways glance. To most, it’s just part of the background, something so obvious it’s ignored.

Even among the environmentally minded, soil sags well below the radar of important causes. But the relationship between soil quality and other aspects of environmental health is intricately entwined. What’s more, it’s a relationship that encompasses a vast swath of territory, from agricultural practices to global climate change, and from the well being of oceans to that of people.

Ultimately it works into a description of Third World soil erosion, chemical burn-out and exhausted productivity. We are told that without aid from the powers that be, the soil, and those it supports, will suffer. I accept that on face value, without hesitation. Third World nations are requesting training in soil management and nutrients to replenish their exhausted soil. We should help them in this.

There is also a short Part II essay, covering factory farms and sustainable farm management. Sidebars provide information on desertification, sludge, the NRCS, soil science as a vanishing skill, and a John Havlin interview.

There is much to like about this piece. Soil seldom gets such professional treatment. However, because it is so well-written – she is a journalist after all – one may not easily spot that some of the observations are presented as foregone conclusions, yet are not supported or warranted. Most of the first 20 paragraphs are full of solum-esque richness. By the end at the 60th paragraph, all the good will banked during the beginning of the essay has been mortgaged by hyperbole...

"Only 8% of our land is arable. This means...", as the context amplifies, that the remaining 92% is "too inhospitable to support our species." (paragraph 8)

"...the practice of destroying soils by torching ... has been employed by armies..." (paragraph 21)

...and mind numbing oversimplification.

"...soils are eroding faster than they can be rebuilt." (paragraph 29)

"The fastest soil regeneration is 200 years, but it can take a million years". (paragraph 30)

The more I learn about soil, the more disservice I see in this type of "Soil Erosion for Dummies" pablum. For one it implies that, absent man's influence, all soils naturally improve with time. Only the young ones do. Nature is not so kind to old soil and soil management must be guided by this fact.

What qualifies as "soil regeneration"? It has always bothered me that regenerating the living processes in the topsoil and regenerating substratum soil mass from the bottom up are treated as not worth differentiating. Still. 80 years, 500-1000 years, or more years to regenerate an inch of soil: You can tell people any number you want, everybody in the know understands its just a theatrical device. A million years is highly theatrical. It implies waiting for a climatic shift or a geologic system reboot.

From a great beginning, the essay wears down to looking at the world through the eyes of a soil science seemingly frozen in time. Conspicuous by its absence are post 1950s discoveries like terra preta and glomalin, discoveries that hint at workings of soil health beyond our current understanding. I choose these examples because they hold the promise of achieving unprecedented soil vitality in the arable soils most of concern in the essay.

Terra preta [updated link (1/29/07)] has been actively researched since the early 1960s. It is a key component of carbon negative fuel production. Terra preta is made by adding charcoal to soil, but total soil carbon continues to build long after additions of charcoal stop. Charcoal producing household wood-gas stoves designs are available. Simple and efficient, these can be used to establish terra preta nova on a scale that matches the Third World's soil carbon crisis. Larger adaptations of the process are being developed commercially. A solar furnace (pdf) alternative is promising.

Glomalin was discovered in 1996. Produced by fungi from carbohydrates supplied by plant allies, glomalin holds 1/3 of global soil carbon, and in a recalcitrant form to boot. It dramatically improves soil health. Low soil nutrient status tends to favor its production, as plants are encouraged to fuel and hydrate their fungal allies in exchange for phosphorus. Perhaps a similar process is supported in terra preta, and accounts for the mysteriously rising tide of soil carbon.

Without a celebration of the ongoing exploration of soil, one is left with the impression that soil scientists have long since exhausted the soil of its potential for significant and exciting discovery.

My final beef is with the John Havlin interview. Why do our soil science leaders continue to get sucked into overplaying the agriculture card? Maybe Charles Kellog should have pounded SSSA a little harder back when he had a chance.

"Many people have the vague notion that soil science is merely a phase of agronomy and deals only with practical soil management for field crops. Whether we like it or not this is the image many have of us." Charles E. Kellog, A challenge to American soil scientists: On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Soil Science Society of America. Soil Science Society of America Proceedings, 25(6):419-423, 1961.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Week of Science Challenge

Evolgen has a challenge for us:

The Week of Science Challenge:
February 5 through February 11

Here are the elements:
* One week of science blogging and only science blogging.
* At least one post a day of pure science content.
* No blogging about anti-science -- no creationism, no anti-vaccination, no global warming denialists.

Bloggers who self-identify as scientists and science writers should post on:

1. Published, peer-reviewed research and their own research.
2. Their expert opinion on actual scientific debates - think review articles.
3. Descriptions of natural phenomena (e.g., why slugs dissolve when you put salt on them, or what causes sun flares; scientific knowledge that has reached the level of fact)

See Just Science for more information forthcoming on how to participate.

I accept!

Photo: Challenge Accepted
Originally uploaded by AD Sniper.

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Gold, Green Roads to OA Soil Science Research

Green Road, Point Reyes, CA

You invest your limited time in reading this and similar science themed blogs to inform yourself. You pursue links that promises to ground you in a new understanding. All too often your admirable efforts are frustrated by links to restricted fee-for-access login pages.

What purpose does it serve to so restrict knowledge that was funded in the public interest? A growing number of open access vehicles for publication and peer review indicate that restricted access is a waning model for funding and disseminating scientific knowledge. OA models are working for chemistry, physics and internal medicine. They will work well for the other sciences.

A recurring theme of advocacy on this blog is open access (OA) to soil science research articles. While I believe strongly that all soil scientists should support their professional soils organizations financially, I believe as strongly that all published soil science research should be freely accessible on the web. Those that can best capitalize on soil science are least able to afford fee-based access. The readers of this blog need OA soil science sources. I am committed to delivering these up to you in the several forms available: gold road and green road.

Advocates of OA differentiate between a "gold road" and a "green road" to success. The gold road is when journals move from restricted access to open access. Without fanfare, the SSSAJ has stepped out onto the gold road. SSSAJ articles now convert to unrestricted access after an 18 month embargo. As a member of SSSA, with a paid subscription to SSSAJ since 1976, my regard for and commitment to SSSAJ has risen to new heights on this quiet action.

SSSAJ's most recent un-embargoed articles are in Vol. 69, Iss. 4.

The green road to OA is where authors self-publish research in open access venues. Especially significant to this is self-archiving. Because it is a seamless extension of accepted pre-web-era practice, OA self-archiving does not interfere with copyright and publication by scientific journals. Because of this acceptance and the unassailable viability of OA self-archiving, resistance is futile:

Open Access (OA) means free access for all would-be users webwide to all articles published in all peer-reviewed research journals across all scholarly and scientific disciplines. 100% OA is optimal for research, researchers, their institutions, and their funders because it maximizes research access and usage. It is also 100% feasible: authors just need to deposit ("self-archive") their articles on their own institutional websites. Hence 100% OA is inevitable. Yet the few keystrokes needed to reach it have been paralyzed for a decade by a seemingly endless series of phobias (about everything from piracy and plagiarism to posterity and priorities), each easily shown to be groundless, yet persistent and recurring. The cure for this "Zeno's Paralysis" is for researchers' institutions and funders to mandate the keystrokes, just as they already mandate publishing, and for the very same reason: to maximize research usage, impact and progress. 95% of researchers have said they would comply with a self-archiving mandate; 93% of journals have already given self-archiving their blessing.

I have linked to self-archived sources in several posts. Philippe Baveye passed along his Whither Goes Soil Science..., which I archived with PB's permission on the site. It's a revealing article, and gets linked frequently.'s copy of the Nature article on Terra Preta (pdf) appears to be based on a similar self-archiving arrangement. Links to self-archived articles were provided in the post on invasive earthworms. In this last case the counter-intuitive conclusion of the research, that the need to prevent the spread of invasive earthworm calls for state legislative action, likely gave the authors critical incentive to make their work more widely accessible to lawmakers and the affected public.

My position is that if a source I here use is restricted access, I won't frustrate you by linking to it. And if I can't link to it, I won't rely on it to explain the positions I take.

I am curious if anybody else reading this blog has thoughts on OA, and especially as it relates to soil science. Your comments are strongly encouraged.

Special thanks to Peter Suber, for his Open Acess News Blog, the best place to monitor the ever strengthening pulse of OA, and the source of my exposure to Zeno's Paralysis.

Photo source: Road through the green
Originally uploaded by chartno3.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

My 2007 Field Season Begins

This week I field validated my hyporheic confinement hypothesis for a site I have been working on.

I had been out mapping wetlands and characterizing a system of ditches and stream-like features. Lucky for me, a chinook was blowing: soil thawed sufficiently to be observed each afternoon. With not-normal effects on vegetation and soil chemistry from seasonal saturation by a nearby irrigation ditch, I suspect these two particular wetlands would delineate smaller, jurisdictionally speaking, come the growing season in March. But I don't know for certain. The combination of river and irrigation induced hydrology can be confounding.

Many of the stream-like ditches used at the site to accommodate irrigation water and return flows were dry. For the ones that had flow I had a devil of a time getting into them safely to measure their cross sectional profile. Prior to my client's purchase for a residential/golf course project, the property was used to run a cow/calf operation. Much of the lower ditch (15 - 30 feet across) has 20 plus inches of anaerobic mud and manure, a sure recipe for disaster for the hip wader approach. The occasional gravel bar saved me from having to pontoon for my data.

The ditches are running with mostly hyporheic/phreatic Yakima River water. I say mostly, because some snowmelt was running in a small ditch onto the site from the upland terrace onto the floodplain. The Yakima is 1000 feet away and was running near bank-full. The ditches are running a few inches below the ordinary high water scour line, and I feel certain the two hydrologies are connected.

The concept that hyporheic/phreatic hydrology can reach this far is a challenge for most folks, including my fellow project team members. How can river groundwater hydrology be feeding it when the ditch is higher than the river? The answer lies in subsurface gravel filled channels. Rivers lose and gain the same water repeatedly. In losing reaches, water drops out of the bottom into permeable gravel filled channels. Where these channels are covered with less permeable material, confinement can result in a considerable buildup of gravitational head. Where the gravel channel reaches to the margin of the floodplain, confined water can upwell at considerable distance from the river, and can be confused with irrigation derived groundwater.

In the Yakima Valley, with its 500,000 irrigated acres and its network of leaky canals, irrigation induced seasonal wetlands are common. In the floodplain, upwelling hyporheic/phreatic river water can be masked by irrigation induced hydrology, but only while the canals are full, or recently so. During this January visit, long after irrigation diversions have ceased, there was no mistaking the dominant river-induced hydrology at the site. Especially telling was the water level in an existing stream-like ditch compared with the newly constructed closed ditch intended become its replacement. Closed at the upper end, the upwelling river derived groundwater flowing in the new ditch was higher by 14 inches than the water flowing in the adjacent, topographically upgradient, closer-to-canal, older, connected, irrigation district return flow structure. 14 inches is also consistent with seepage on the bank of the older ditch structure. In the photo these are separated by only 60 feet.

These 2 ditches provide the strongest validation I've seen in the 20 years I have been observing and puzzling over hyporheic confinement and upwelling.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Carbon Credit Payments for US Forest, No-till Crop, Manure, or Grassland

The North Dakota Farmers Union has successfully started a Carbon Credit Program. It allows ag producers and landowners to earn income by storing carbon in their soil through no-till crop production and longterm grass seeding practices. There are also forestry (tree planting) and methane offset (manure digester) contracts. Forestry and methane contracts are available nationwide and have no enrollment date. Soil offset contracts are limited to the yellow and green areas on the adjacent map. Soil carbon characterization studies are needed to expand the enrollment areas.

As a result of their pioneer role, NDFU is the official aggregator with the Chicago Climate Exchange and is serving as the fiscal agent for the program as it expands to other states. Individual state Farmers Union organizations will receive some of the revenue from the aggregation program. The program:

... demands recently planted forest or grassland, or cropland that’s been farmed in recent years.

“They want it to be newer plantings,”...

The North Dakota Farmer’s union started the carbon-credit program and technically, is the official aggregator — the entity that collects credits and puts them on CCX for sale.

The national and state Farmers Unions help organize the program and get farmers involved.

To learn more about the carbon credit program, visit the National Farmers Union Web site: and click on the environment tab, or call the Wisconsin Farmers Union at 715-723-5561 or visit it on the Internet at

Source: River Falls Journal

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Sombroek's Challenge - Terra Preta Nova

The Godfather of Terra Preta, soil scientist Wim Sombroek (1934 - 2003) enjoyed a lifelong fascination with enhanced soil. The importance of plaggen soil in his native Netherlands impressed him at an early age, and early in the 1960's, he recognized in the Amazonian Dark Earths something familiar and precious. Before his passing, he assembled specific soil scientists, challenging them to discover the process for making and sustaining a modern equivalent of the bio-char enhanced terra preta, what he termed terra preta nova.

A great opportunity in answering Sombroek's challenge lies is surmounting the opacity of mutualistic rhizospheric species to traditional analytical approaches: only 1% of rhizospheric species are cultureable ala petri dish. We don't have a robust body of culture-independent studies against which to compare Terra Preta, so we are doubly challenged to reverse-engineer the phenomenon.

Considering Wim Somboek's many noteworthy accomplishments, the perspective of his international leadership, and the late-in-life timing of his challenge, one senses he is pointing us to a mystery fundamental to understanding soil in new and exciting ways. This happens at a time when the soil science profession is in dynamic transition and sorely in need of a unifying vision. Wim Sombroek has given soil scientists a most welcome and worthy quest.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Black Earth

Peak Energy has a long post on Terra Preta that brings together what has been established on the subject. As of yet, there is no direct mention of the role of glomalin , just a minor mention of the mutualistic fungi that produce it. Glomalin is an unvalidated factor in Terra Preta formation that several of us sense will be demonstrated by soil research as fundamentally important.

Spurred on by back40, I am fascinated with bio-char, Terra Preta's key soil amendment. Last summer I constructed a small charcoal retort out of a cracker tin. I used it to produce small pilot batches of low temperature charcoal. Hoping to transform my simple charcoal into a reasonably bio-char-like material, I am currently composting my bits.

Image source: Nestor Kaempf

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Two New Soil Science Blogs

David Crouse, over at North Carolina State has started a new soil science blog. It is obviously a tentative effort at this point, seeing as how the last post has nothing to do with soil science. You have to start somewhere. I am eagerly looking for more soil science blogging. NC State is one of my favorite soil science universities so, while I haven't met DC personally, I expect this blog could work up to (or inspire) something noteworthy.

I have started a second soil science related blog: NSCSS News and Views. A fair amount of material gets passed to me as NSCSS Secretary. Job opportunities, for example. I'll post items as they get to me. If I notice anything attracting and holding folks attention, I'll build on that.

See also: Where are all the soil science bloggers....