Texas Challenge

The Texas Soil Carbon Challenge has been the biggest yet, fitting the state. So far I've done over two dozen baseline plots in this state, and I'm not quite done. The support of the Dixon Water Foundation has been wonderful.

The 2011 drought in Texas has been among the worst ever for a single year. In addition, fires have burned up huge acreages, including this ranch in West Texas (right).

Vermont Soil Carbon Challenge kickoff

Seth Itzkan kindly provided some video of the short talks at this event at Stan and Helen Ward's Three Springs Farm in Waitsfield, Vermont on October 21, 2011.

Peter Donovan and Abe Collins are co-founders of the Soil Carbon Coalition, which initiated the Challenge.

Seth Itzkan is a futurist from the Boston area who recently spent 6 weeks at the Africa Centre for Holistic Management in Dibangombe, Zimbabwe.

NRCS soil health factsheets--Farming in the 21st century

These excellent factsheets are courtesy of the NRCS Soil Quality Team. Right-click and choose Save As to download.

2-page version (4 mb):
http://soilcarboncoalition.org/files/21st_century_soil_health_factsheet.pdf

6-page version (7.8 mb):
http://soilcarboncoalition.org/files/21st_century_soil_health_expanded_v...

Diversity in the Dakotas

ORTONVILLE, MINNESOTA--The past month I have been traveling through South Dakota and North Dakota doing baseline carbon monitoring.
First stop in the Dakotas was outside of Newell, South Dakota, at the two ranches purchased in 2010 by Grasslands LLC in cooperation with the Savory Institute. Brandon Dalton manages the cattle and grass, and this year they are running about 3400 yearling cattle and several hundred cow-calf pairs on about 14,000 acres total. It was exciting to see such large herds moving across this splendid grassland. One day I observed large, ball-rolling dung beetles at work. Brandon helped me with a couple of plots.

Water

Top, the remains of Teton Dam near Newdale, Idaho. Middle, taking core samples in eastern Idaho. Bottom, drying core samples for processing along the Yellowstone River. (Solar hot water heater at right.)

Recently I visited the site of the 1976 Teton Dam failure, a testimony to the failure of engineering and technology to control water. And driving down the Musselshell River in Montana, the evidence of this spring's catastrophic flood was everywhere. And the Montana grasslands are greener in August than many can remember.

With all the emphasis in the climate conversation on carbon, we sometimes forget that water vapor is the number one greenhouse gas. Without water vapor in the atmosphere, the earth would be a ball of ice even in summer, as Irish physicist John Tyndall recognized in 1859.

About a third of incoming solar energy is taken up by the evaporation of water, mostly from the oceans. Photosynthesis, which drives the carbon cycle, uses much less solar energy, much less than 1 percent of incoming solar. Yet this production of biomass, and the foodwebs and biodiversity it helps generate, is the primary factor for effective water cycles on land as these videos demonstrate. Without biomass to build and maintain them, and to slow water, our soils would wash into the sea even faster than some of them are now.

On transect

The other day I did three transects for a ranch up Antelope Creek off Big Lost River: one in a flood-irrigated peat meadow, the next in an aerobic subirrigated meadow (pictured, with the bus in the background), and the last one in dry sagebrush. Within one mile, a tremendous contrast of soils.

I built a fire in the stove the next morning, as it was about a degree above freezing at daylight in this mountain valley at 6200 feet.

Reflections on energy

Relatively recent lava flows, Craters of the Moon, Idaho

Near Arco, Idaho, I passed by the recent lava fields left by the passage of the North American plate over the hotspot that is now under Yellowstone National Park. The older flows have developed pockets of soil that support sagebrush, currant bushes, grasses, and forbs. Spider webs spread over pockets of apparently lifeless black lava, catching seeds, insects, and bits of organic material.

 
At night, I've been sleeping out of the bus under the thousands of stars, which like our sun are powered by nuclear fusion reactions that balance and counteract the forces of gravitational collapse. All life is ultimately powered by this energy.

At midday today, a weather and other instrument panel at a roadside rest stop recorded 987 watts per square meter of incoming solar energy. I'm using some of this with a solar panel, but this energy capture is dwarfed by solar energy capture by plants. Though plants are much less "efficient" than even mediocre photovoltaic panels, they maintain and reproduce themselves and arise willy-nilly on soils that are able to absorb and retain some moisture.

 

Soil Carbon Challenge baseline tour 2011

Doug McDaniel and Peter Donovan as Peter prepares to leave Lostine, Oregon on a cross-country soil carbon monitoring trip, July 21, 2011

Monitoring pyramid

While we're on the subject of pyramids, Charley Orchard at Landekg.com has made a useful diagram of what makes monitoring valuable. Click the image to go to the May 2011 Land EKG newsletter explaining it.

Policy pyramids

Situation: For years, working groups and strategy sessions on soil carbon have focused hopes on a market for soil carbon credits or offsets. Even with the failure of cap and trade in the US Senate, this focus dominates policy conversations in the US.

There is relatively little data on soil carbon change, especially from nonstandard land management strategies. Understanding of how carbon cycling works, in complex situations and with various types of management, is shaky and overly influenced by all the factors on the upper layer on the left, above.

Worst possible outcomes: this focus continues to occupy hopes and dreams, time and energy. A workable market or incentive does not emerge. Or, if a market emerges, it rewards practices rather than performance, does not significantly enhance soil health, and cannot be maintained. We remain in the situation pictured on the left, above.

Best possible outcomes. Strong platforms develop in terms of data and understanding, with good and improving performance in turning atmospheric carbon into water-holding, fertility-enhancing soil organic matter that is monitored. If there is a policy incentive or market, it is firmly supported by understanding and data, and may be local rather than national, with the benefits close to the costs.

Ways to foster best possible outcomes. Start at the bottom, not the top. Develop a wide-ranging and site-specific range of data and proven possibilities on soil carbon change, which is a keystone indicator of biosphere function on land. This data should be public and available, not secret or unavailable as is most of it now. Understanding of carbon cycling, soil health, biosphere function will probably follow, as well as performance and policy. (Learn more about positive deviance.)

The Soil Carbon Challenge starts at the bottom. And the bottom of the page is where our contact info is. Please contact us if you're interested in a baseline, getting trained as a Monitor, or if you are interested in helping us out with a donation. We can also accept donations to support and implement specific and local monitoring projects.

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