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This International Year of Soil resulted in some serious action that has brought the soils beneath our feet into the limelight.

 

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It’s been a quarter century since government regulations limiting emissions of sulfur and nitrogen oxides from coal-fired power plants began to neutralize the problem of acid rain, but lakes in the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada have been sluggish to recover.

Scientists have linked the delayed comeback to a lack of acid-buffering calcium in surrounding soils, which continued to acidify despite cuts in pollutants. Now, however, a study shows for the first time that soil acidification has begun to reverse across a broad swath from western Ontario to Maine (Environ. Sci. Technol. 2015, DOI:10.1021/acs.est.5b02904). Researchers hope improvements to forest health and lake water quality will follow.

To read the remainder of the article that originally appeared on the Chemical & Engineering News website Nov. 6. visit: http://cen.acs.org/articles/93/web/2015/11/Soils-Damaged-Acid-Rain-Begin.html

 

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Carbon Sequestration in Grazing Land Ecosystems1

 

Maria Silveira, Ed Hanlon, Mariana Azenha, and Hiran M. da Silva2

 

This publication provides basic information about the important role of native and improved pastures (referred to as grazing land) in sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Because of the relatively high sequestration rates and extensive area, grazing land represents an important component of terrestrial carbon dioxide (CO2) offset and is a significant sink for long-term carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas mitigation. This publication contains information for stakeholders, students, scientists, and environmental agencies interested in enhancing ecosystems services provided by grazing lands.

 

Global Carbon Cycle

 

The global carbon cycle consists of complex processes that control the movement of carbon between the atmosphere, land, and oceans. Although natural processes dominate the carbon cycle, human-induced activities can also alter these carbon transfers. In the atmosphere, carbon is mainly present as carbon dioxide (CO2). Large amounts of carbon are also present in the soil, primarily as soil organic matter. Soil organic matter plays a key role in determining soil quality and its potential to produce food, fiber, and fuel. During the past two decades, the global carbon cycle has received significant attention because of its role in global climate change.

 

Two important global topics are the rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations caused by human-induced activities (primarily combustion of fossil fuels) and the potential effects on climate change. In addition to CO2, increased atmospheric concentrations of nitrous oxides (N2O and NO) and methane (CH4) are also believed to cause global warming. Carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides, and methane (also known as greenhouse gases) can trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. Levels of several important greenhouse gases have increased by 25% since large-scale industrialization began approximately 150 years ago, and this increase is primarily caused by energy use.

 

Plants remove carbon from the atmosphere during photosynthesis, a process done without human intervention. However, to address the contributions made by humans, the carbon must be stored or sequestered. Typically, carbon in plants undergoes several conversions. Some conversions are rapid, such as the addition of fresh plant material to the soil, while others may take long periods of time. For example, a large amount of carbon is already sequestered in our soil.

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The latest episode of the Thrive podcast takes a close look at the ground beneath our feet. Soil, on which terrestrial life depends, is often ignored precisely because it is everywhere and yet invisible. Healthy soils contribute so much to human well-being, from nutritious food to clean water, and yet the soils of more than a fifth of all cropland, pasture, forest and woodland are degraded to some extent. Degraded soils, apart from being unable to meet the needs of the people who depend on them, also emit large amounts of greenhouse gasses, contributing to climate change.

How, then, can we best restore degraded soils? Sessions at Global Soil Week 2015 in Berlin, co-organized by the Water, Land and Ecosystems research program of CGIAR, provided a platform for people to share different approaches, each of which has something to offer.

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Humankind is faced with the continuing challenge of sustainably growing sufficient food to feed an ever-growing population. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization [1] citing a United Nations World Population Prospects report predicts that the earth’s population will reach 9.1 billion by the middle of this century.

Much of this growth will be in nations whose populations now suffer from malnutrition or outright starvation. In addition to a growing population, the increase in people will demand more food, more meat, and higher quality food because it will be more urban and wealthier according to FAO. Their estimate is that increased demand will require current food production to rise by 60 percent.

The challenge becomes more acute when it is understood that the land area for growing food is not expanding. Indeed, urban growth onto farmland and loss of arable (farmable) soil by wind and water erosion are reducing the available land area most suitable for farming. More land can be brought into production, but with a potentially high environmental and monetary cost.

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Alix Blair: Book Review

Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth by William Bryant Logan.

W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1995.

 

William Bryant Logan’s book Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth is a 202-page love song to the soil. Logan’s book is made up of multiple styles: part scientific fact, part narrative storytelling, part poetry, part history-lesson.

 

Logan’s writing is beautiful, meditative, metaphor-full, and poetic, filled with lyrical connections between surprising thoughts. He uses soil as the connective thread to examine multiple, immense ideas, many verging on discussions of the meaning of life.

 

To give an example of his style of writing, in taking on the beginning of life on earth (no small subject), Logan writes, “life is the story of bodies that learned to contain the sea…when you look for a creature to match the range of motion of the human hand, you find yourself back with the wiggling orange filaments of fungi and the gesture of acclamation of a spreading bacterial branch” (11,13).

 

Moving from the beginning of life, he takes on death in graphic detail in the chapter The Soil of Graves writing, “so in the end the tomb is empty, and human forms have been changed into apple forms. The soil of graves is the transformer. It is natural magic. The grave is a memory from which the story of the Earth is told” (57).

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Authors:

Lorena M. Zavala. University of Seville, Sevilla, Spain

Antonio Jordán. University of Seville, Sevilla, Spain

Jorge Mataix-Solera. University Miguel Hernández, Elche, Spain

Artemi Cerdà. University of Valencia, Valencia, Spain

 

Originally posted at http://blogs.egu.eu/divisions/sss/ on March 3, 2015. 

 

According to official statistics, during the 1990’s, about 1.5 million ha were burned in Spain. In the first decade of this century, the burned area in Spain also surpassed one million hectares. To put it in conventional TV surface units, the burned area in the past 20 years equals the provinces of Cáceres and Badajoz, or 274,000 soccer fields. The effects caused by the fire on the soil have been studied over the past 20 years by research groups who have made a significant contribution to the advancement and improvement of scientific knowledge.

 

Forest fires are a regular topic of conversation in our society, especially during summer conversations, and people agrees to describe forest fires as disasters. Instead, they disagree vehemently about forest management, restoration and prevention policies. We have never seen one of those familiar discussions in which a consensus has been reached. Nor have we seen people talking about the twinned management of fire and forest areas. We cannot understand fire as something alien to ecosystems.

 

Undoubtedly, forest fires are an important part of the history of Mediterranean and most terrestrial ecosystems. Natural fires caused by lightning or other causes such as volcanic eruptions, have contributed to shape the history of vegetation, soils, and ultimately the landscape we know. Fire has been used by humans since 400,000 years ago and only about 10,000 years ago man learned to light a fire without relying on natural agents such as lightning.

 

Since then, the fire has been an excellent tool to harness and manage natural ecosystems worldwide. The Mediterranean landscape we know today has been shaped by the action of man for thousands of years, and the use of fire is not out of this process. The intense transformation of original forests in cropland and pastures since the fifteenth century to promote livestock, the exploitation of coal and wood, and human supply has been possible thanks to fire.

 

Since the mid-twentieth century, and as a result of urbanization and the abandonment of rural areas, traditional agricultural uses and management are being lost. Perhaps this is why, now, people see fire as an enemy that must be eradicated. The problem is not fire itself, but the modification of natural fire regimes in ecosystems.

 

This has turned fire, a natural ecological factor, in an environmental problem. The solution therefore is not as simple as the total eradication of fire. Burning shrubland.

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Introduction

 

Non-point source pollution (NPS) is a global problem affecting the safety of our drinking water supply and aquatic habitats. According to the 2000 National Water Quality Inventory, agriculturally derived NPS is the leading cause of water quality degradation in surface waters. Pollutants originating from agricultural runoff include sediment, nutrients (N and P), pesticides, pathogens, salts, trace elements, dissolved organic carbon and substances that contribute to biological oxygen demand (BOD). 

 

For example, discharge of nutrients into aquatic ecosystems has led to the formation of hypoxia/anoxia induced “dead zones” in more than 400 locations worldwide. Thus, new and effective management practices for agriculture must be identified, tested and monitored in order to reduce the impacts of agriculture on the sustainability of water resources.

 

Wetlands are widely advertised as critical components of our planet providing a wide variety of ecosystem services: kidneys of the hydrologic cycle by removing pollutants, biodiversity hot spots, habitats of rare and endangered species, ground water recharge zones, localized areas for flood protection, carbon sinks and aesthetic value.

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“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”
– Franklin D. Roosevelt

Roosevelt’s words might bring to mind images of pavement or resource extraction, yet our most common agricultural practices also are destroying our soil.

Modern industrial agricultural practices have been impacting our once-rich belowground ecosystem since the early 20th century and we’re just beginning to understand how it’s affecting our health.

When compared with the nutrient value of the foods our grandparents ate, what we consume today has substantially lower nutritional value. According to the “Journal of the American College of Nutrition,” today’s foods typically are lower in protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C. It’s now possible to buy an orange that contains zero vitamin C.

Why is this happening? One potential cause is changes in plant varieties. If breeders are focused on other factors besides nutritional value (yield, disease resistance, etc.), then the new varieties may decline in nutrient concentrations. Depleted soil may be another reason.

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Soil-profile art is not akin to classic paintings with themes; rather, it resembles abstract art: and if you are used to thinking of soil as dirt, which is customary in our society, you are not keyed to find beauty in it.”  Hans Jenny, 1984

 

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Why soils?

2015 has been designated the International Year of Soils by the United Nations.  This designation has been embraced in the United States by the Department of Agriculture, the Soil Science Society of America and others. Many readers may be asking, “why?” This article will serve as an introduction to the topic and CIRS will post monthly submissions by experts on the particular value of soils. Our approach will focus on the rural but we will not limit our discussion to rural regions. There are many rich and productive soils being used in urban areas to sustain communities by providing space to grow food. And food production is our concern. Soil is the foundation of civilization and has been the key to human development over the past 13,000 years.

 

In this series of posts we will discuss soil formation, ecosystem functions of soil, soil loss, the economic value of soil, soils on pasture land, soils in crop production, soil and water, the politics of soil, soil and food security and carbon sequestration in soils. Expect a diverse and well regarded group of writers and look for them here the last Monday of every month.

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