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- Dirt Just Doesn't Get the Respect It Deserves
How the Loss of Soil Is Sacrificing America’s Natural Heritage
A new study points to a stunning loss of topsoil in the Corn Belt — the result of farming practices that have depleted this once-fertile ground. Beyond diminished agricultural productivity and more carbon in the atmosphere, it is a catastrophic loss of an irreplaceable resource.
Soil, the carbon cycle, carbon farming...
North America used to be famed for its rich and fertile topsoil
“This work indicates that soils have a weaker capacity to soak up carbon than we have been assuming over the past few decades,” said UCI Chancellor’s Professor of Earth system science James Randerson, senior author of a new study on the subject to be published Friday in the journal Science. “It means we have to be even more proactive in finding ways to cut emissions of fossil fuels to limit the magnitude and impacts of climate warming.”
“A substantial amount of the greenhouse gas that we thought was being taken up and stored in the soil is actually going to stay in the atmosphere,” said study co-author Steven Allison, UCI associate professor of ecology & evolutionary biology and Earth system science.
Net biome productivity (NBP). That is defined by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, tasked with combating global warming, as: "the net gain or loss of carbon in an area, equal to the net ecosystem production, minus the carbon lost from events such as a forest being cut down, or setting on fire.
Today, plants and soil around the world absorb roughly a quarter of the greenhouse gases that humans release into the atmosphere, helping the Earth avoid some of the worst effects of climate change. In an ideal situation, as levels of carbon dioxide increased, plants would soak up more of these emissions, helping to fuel their growth.
But in a study published in the journal Nature (January 2019), researchers found that under a warming climate, rather than absorbing more greenhouse gas emissions, plants and soil may start absorbing less, accelerating the rate of change.
“We have this image of the planet getting very, very green as we move into the future,” said Pierre Gentine, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia University and an author of the study. “But it may be the opposite.”
When the soil is dry, plants are stressed and can’t absorb as much CO₂ to perform photosynthesis. At the same time, because dry conditions are often accompanied by warm temperatures, microorganisms in the soil, which are more productive when it’s warm, release more CO₂.
“From now until 2060, we’re going to have to produce as much food as we have in the last 500 years.”
"Dirt", the soil biology that makes agriculture possible
Don't Forget the Earthworms
Earthworms work as biological "pistons" forcing air through the tunnels as they move. Thus earthworm activity aerates and mixes the soil, and is conducive to mineralization of nutrients and their uptake by vegetation. Certain species of earthworm come to the surface and graze on the higher concentrations of organic matter present there, mixing it with the mineral soil. Because a high level of organic matter mixing is associated with soil fertility, an abundance of earthworms is generally considered beneficial by farmers and gardeners.
In fact, as long ago as 1881 Charles Darwin wrote: "It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures."
Soil biology is the study of microbial and faunal activity and ecology in soil. Soil life, soil biota, soil fauna, or edaphon is a collective term that encompasses all the organisms that spend a significant portion of their life cycle within a soil profile, or at the soil-litter interface. These organisms include earthworms, nematodes, protozoa, fungi, bacteria and different arthropods. Soil biology plays a vital role in determining many soil characteristics. The decomposition of organic matter by soil organisms has an immense influence on soil fertility, plant growth, soil structure, and carbon storage. As a relatively new science, much remains unknown about soil biology and their effects on soil ecosystems.
The soil is home to a large proportion of the world's biodiversity. The links between soil organisms and soil functions are observed to be incredibly complex. The interconnectedness and complexity of this soil ‘food web’ means any appraisal of soil function must necessarily take into account interactions with the living communities that exist within the soil. We know that soil organisms break down organic matter, making nutrients available for uptake by plants and other organisms. The nutrients stored in the bodies of soil organisms prevent nutrient loss by leaching. Microbial exudates act to maintain soil structure, and earthworms are important in bioturbation. However, we find that we don't understand critical aspects about how these populations function and interact. The discovery of glomalin in 1995 indicates that we lack the knowledge to correctly answer some of the most basic questions about the biogeochemical cycle in soils. We have much work ahead to gain a better understanding of how soil biological components affect us and the biosphere...
Dealing with Waste, What's Compostable?
Meet Dr. Elaine Ingham -- Rodale
The practice of seeding fields between harvests not only keeps topsoil in place, it also adds carbon to the soil and helps the beneficial microbes, fungus, bacteria and worms in it thrive...
Cover cropping is used only by a small minority of farmers. When the U.S. Agriculture Department asked for the first time about cover cropping for its 2012 Census of Agriculture report, just 10.3 million acres — out of about 390 million total acres of farmland sown in crops — on 133,124 farms were planted with cover crops. The next census won’t be done until 2017, but experts say that the practice has spread...
“We’ve never seen anything taken up as rapidly as using cover crops,” said Barry Fisher, a soil health specialist at the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency within the Agriculture Department.
Modern farming practices like applying fertilizer and herbicides and not tilling their fields, or “no till,” have helped farmers increase yields and reduced labor, but they have also unintentionally interfered with root systems, increased erosion and disrupted underground microbial activity and insect life that are vital to plant and soil health.
The belowground compartment of ecosystems harbours a tremendous amount of global biodiversity.
Extinction models for belowground organisms are currently unavailable; thus, soil ecologists at the moment have no choice but to generalize the predictions for aboveground biota to their system. Yet, the ecology of belowground biota differs considerably from that of the aboveground organisms that have so far been considered in extinction models — at least with regard to their niche structure which we consider in the following. The most conspicuous difference relates to body size variability which, even without considering belowground microbes, is several orders of magnitude larger in soils. Unlike their aboveground relatives, microbial organisms in soil also represent the base trophic level of their food webs and are responsible for overall ecosystem functioning....
Habitat loss and global change
The extinction ecology for the majority of belowground organisms is thus likely to be quite different from that of the macroorganisms that have been considered so far in the literature. To gain informative insights on extinction susceptibility it is important to first compare the drivers of prospective extinctions belowground with those that have been studied so far in extinction ecology... documented drivers of extinctions are habitat loss and fragmentation.
[S]oil biota play a large role in sustainable ecosystem management.... [We need to] communicate the importance of belowground biota for ecosystem-services sustainability to aboveground extinction ecologists.
Soil Science Resources
The United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service has compiled detailed soils data for approximately 95 percent of the counties in the United States. The soils data contains information such as the texture, drainage, depth, and chemical characteristics of the soil. This data can be accessed by reviewing hard copy Soil Surveys (which can typically be found at the local library or local NRCS office), or online from the NRCS Web Soil Survey.
The 12 soil orders are listed below in the sequence in which they key out in Soil Taxonomy / see international location mapping for each
- Gelisols - soils with permafrost within 2 m of the surface
- Histosols - organic soils
- Spodosols - acid forest soils with a subsurface accumulation of metal-humus complexes
- Andisols - soils formed in volcanic ash
- Oxisols - intensely weathered soils of tropical and subtropical environments
- Vertisols - clayey soils with high shrink/swell capacity
- Aridisols - CaCO3-containing soils of arid environments with subsurface horizon development
- Ultisols - strongly leached soils with a subsurface zone of clay accumulation and <35% base saturation
- Mollisols - grassland soils with high base status
- Alfisols - moderately leached soils with a subsurface zone of clay accumulation and >35% base saturation
- Inceptisols - soils with weakly developed subsurface horizons
- Entisols - soils with little or no morphological development
Web Soil Survey (WSS) provides soil data and information produced by the National Cooperative Soil Survey. It is operated by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and provides access to the largest natural resource information system in the world. NRCS has soil maps and data available online for more than 95 percent of the nation’s counties and anticipates having 100 percent in the near future. The site is updated and maintained online as the single authoritative source of soil survey information.
The World Hydro Reference Overlay Map service is designed to be used as a base map by scientists, professionals, and researchers in the fields of Hydrology, Geography, Climate, Soils, and other natural sciences. The map features a hydro-centric design based on the amount of water flowing within the drainage network such that symbols of the same size and color represent roughly the same amount of water.
Soil Crisis Across the Globe
- "Treating Soil Like Dirt"
We’re treating soil like dirt. It’s a fatal mistake, as our lives depend on it...
by George Monbiot (*GreenPolicy360 'writer-to-follow')
Imagine a wonderful world, a planet on which there was no threat of climate breakdown, no loss of freshwater, no antibiotic resistance, no obesity crisis, no terrorism, no war. Surely, then, we would be out of major danger? Sorry. Even if everything else were miraculously fixed, we’re finished if we don’t address an issue considered so marginal and irrelevant that you can go for months without seeing it in a newspaper.
It’s literally and – it seems – metaphorically, beneath us. To judge by its absence from the media, most journalists consider it unworthy of consideration. But all human life depends on it. We knew this long ago, but somehow it has been forgotten. As a Sanskrit text written in about 1500BC noted: “Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.”
The issue hasn’t changed, but we have. Landowners around the world are now engaged in an orgy of soil destruction so intense that, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the world on average has just 60 more years of growing crops. Even in Britain, which is spared the tropical downpours that so quickly strip exposed soil from the land, Farmers Weekly reports, we have “only 100 harvests left”.
To keep up with global food demand, the UN estimates, 6m hectares (14.8m acres) of new farmland will be needed every year. Instead, 12m hectares a year are lost through soil degradation. We wreck it, then move on, trashing rainforests and other precious habitats as we go. Soil is an almost magical substance, a living system that transforms the materials it encounters, making them available to plants. That handful the Vedic master showed his disciples contains more micro-organisms than all the people who have ever lived on Earth. Yet we treat it like, well, dirt...
Arable land v Non-Arable (Infertile) land
Check the arable land map for your country --
Losing the Land, Unsustainable Ag</big>
Climate change, soil degradation and rising wealth are shrinking the amount of usable land in Africa. But the number of people who need it is rising fast
Only Decades of Farming If Soil Degradation Continues
Generating three centimeters of top soil takes 1,000 years, and if current rates of degradation continue all of the world's top soil could be gone within 60 years...
About a third of the world's soil has already been degraded, Maria-Helena Semedo of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) told a forum marking World Soil Day.
The causes of soil destruction include chemical-heavy farming techniques, deforestation which increases erosion, and global warming. The earth under our feet is too often ignored by policymakers, experts say.
Unless new approaches are adopted, the global amount of arable and productive land per person in 2050 will be only a quarter of the level in 1960, the FAO reported, due to growing populations and soil degradation...
Soils play a key role in absorbing carbon and filtering water, the FAO reported. Soil destruction creates a vicious cycle, in which less carbon is stored, the world gets hotter, and the land is further degraded.
"We are losing 30 soccer fields of soil every minute, mostly due to intensive farming," Volkert Engelsman, an activist with the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements told the forum at the FAO's headquarters in Rome.
"Organic (farming) may not be the only solution but it's the single best (option) I can think of."
"Think of soil as an organism"
A broken food system is destroying the soil and fueling health crises as well as conflicts, warns Professor John Crawford of the University of Sydney.
Watch Professor John Crawford / Sustainability and Complex Systems Director --
Q&A with Professor Crawford
Is soil really in danger of running out?
A rough calculation of current rates of soil degradation suggests we have about 60 years of topsoil left. Some 40% of soil used for agriculture around the world is classed as either degraded or seriously degraded – the latter means that 70% of the topsoil, the layer allowing plants to grow, is gone. Because of various farming methods that strip the soil of carbon and make it less robust as well as weaker in nutrients, soil is being lost at between 10 and 40 times the rate at which it can be naturally replenished. Even the well-maintained farming land in Europe, which may look idyllic, is being lost at unsustainable rates...
Agriculture accounts for 70% of our fresh water use: we pour most of our water straight onto the ground. If soil is not fit for purpose, that water will be wasted, because it washes right through degraded soil and past the root system. Given the enormous potential for conflict over water in the next 20-30 years, you don’t want to exacerbate things by continuing to damage the soil, which is exactly what’s happening now.
How does soil erosion happen?
Soil is a living material: if you hold a handful of soil, there will be more microorganisms in there than the number of people who have ever lived on the planet. These microbes recycle organic material, which underpins the cycle of life on Earth, and also engineer the soil on a tiny level to make it more resilient and better at holding onto water. Microbes need carbon for food, but carbon is being lost from the soil in a number of ways.
Simply put, we take too much from the soil and don’t put enough back. Whereas the classic approach would have been to leave stubble in the field after harvest, this is now often being burned off, which can make it easier to grow the next crop; or it’s being removed and used for animal feed. Second, carbon is lost by too much disturbance of the soil by over-ploughing and by the misuse of certain fertilizers. And the third problem is overgrazing. If there are too many animals, they eat all the plant growth, and one of the most important ways of getting carbon into the soil is through photosynthesis.
What happens if this isn’t addressed?
There are two key issues. One is the loss of soil productivity. Under a business-as-usual scenario, degraded soil will mean that we will produce 30% less food over the next 20-50 years. This is against a background of projected demand requiring us to grow 50% more food, as the population grows and wealthier people in countries like China and India eat more meat, which takes more land to produce weight-for-weight than, say, rice.
Second, water will reach a crisis point. This issue is already causing conflicts in India, China, Pakistan and the Middle East. Before climate change and food security really hit, the next wars are likely to be fought over unsustainable irrigation. Even moderately degraded soil will hold less than half of the water held by healthy soil in the same location. If you’re irrigating a crop, you need water to stay in the soil close to the plant roots. However, a staggering paper was published recently indicating that nearly half of the sea level rise since 1960 is due to irrigation water flowing straight past the crops and washing out to sea.
Who will be impacted the most?
Soil erosion is most serious in China, Africa, India and parts of South America. If the food supply goes down, then, obviously, the price goes up. The crisis points will hit the poorest countries hardest...
Soil and Water: An Overview of the US
- The US Southwest Has Serious Water-Soil Problems -- and the Ogallala Is in Danger
- Large areas of the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the most important sources of water for agricultural crops in the United States, are at risk of drying up if the aquifer continues to be drained at its current rate.
- The Ogallala, also known as the High Plains Aquifer (HPA), spans from Texas to South Dakota and provides water to grow $35 billion in crops each year. However, since the 1950s, when high-volume pumping began, the HPA’s saturated volume has declined by roughly the volume of Lake Erie...
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, water levels across most of the Ogallala have fallen at least five feet since farmers began irrigating the Great Plains in the 1940s. Almost one-fifth of the area has dropped at least 25 feet, while 11% has lost 50 feet or more.
Aquifer Depletion, Drought -- Soil, Organic Impacts and Loss
Depletion & Runoff Pollution
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