Soil Carbon Challenge

Items relating to the Soil Carbon Challenge or World Carbon Cup

The Soil Carbon Challenge

1. It is possible to build carbon-rich, water-holding soil organic matter by working with the natural processes of photosynthesis and decay.

2. Change in soil carbon can be measured affordably and accurately via small, fixed plots.

The Soil Carbon Challenge is an international (and localized) prize competition to see how fast land managers can turn atmospheric carbon into soil organic matter. See updates here. We're actively seeking new entrants, partnerships for localized or sector-specific competitions, and suggestions.

California Grassland Carbon Challenge launched in January 2011.

Vermont Soil Carbon Challenge launched in October 2011.

As of December 2014, 250 baseline plots in North America.


Today we understand as never before the crucial role that soil carbon plays in biosphere function, soil fertility, flooding and drought, biodiversity, and the carbon content of the atmosphere.

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#1 entry to the Soil Carbon Challenge

  The Soil Carbon Challenge

Today we understand as never before the crucial role that carbon-rich soil organic matter plays in the quantity and quality of the food we grow, in moderating flooding and drought, in the quantity and quality of runoff and groundwater, in biodiversity, and in the composition of the atmosphere, especially its carbon content.

However, our institutions and political systems have been largely unable to take advantage of the great opportunity this understanding offers, because like most of us they focus on problem-solving, on managing against threats. For example, since 1900 the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been managing against food contamination, low prices for agricultural commodities, soil erosion, hunger and malnutrition, fire in the forests, nitrate pollution, and on and on. The #1 recommendation to land managers of its small Soil Quality Team is to enhance soil organic matter, yet the overall effect of USDA policies, by fostering tillage, fire, and chemical use, is to oxidize large tonnages of soil carbon into the atmosphere, and limit its replenishment.

Climate policy proposals are even more tightly focused on problem-solving, on threats and risks. Because of the great size of the soil carbon pool compared to atmosphere and vegetation, and the magnitude of its responses to human decisions, the soil carbon factor threatens to reframe the climate debate, discomfiting both climate activists and agribusiness, and increasing the uncertainties all around. Proposals to commodify soil carbon as a potential "offset" to fossil fuel emissions have raised resistance from every sector and stripe, yet such proposals have framed almost all of the recent research on soil carbon.

If you want to find out how fast a human can run 100 meters, do you build a computer model, do a literature search, or convene a panel of experts on human physiology to make a prediction?

No, you run a race. Or many of them.

There’s been tons of talk about soil carbon, but it’s time for motion: to show with good data what’s possible, and recognize those land managers who know how to increase soil carbon.

Where things are stuck or the way forward is unclear, a competition can supply creative and unconventional solutions. A competition can leapfrog the decades-long cycle of research, pilot projects, legislation, and incentives, and can showcase leadership based on knowhow and performance rather than on promises and predictions. A competition can tell the stories of soil carbon to citizens, governments, and farmers better than anything else. Competitions change the question from Can it be done? to How well, and how fast?

The Soil Carbon Challenge measures soil carbon change with permanent plots, field sampling, and dry combustion tests. Three baseline plots make an entry, resampled at years 3, 6, and 10.

It’s not an offset scheme. It’s the next agricultural revolution, and you can bring it to your district, sector, or community.

We're proud to report that Tony and Andrea Malmberg, of Union, Oregon, experienced ranchers and holistic planned graziers, are the first entrants in the Soil Carbon Challenge.

The Soil Carbon Challenge is an international as well as local competition to see how fast land managers can turn atmospheric carbon into soil organic matter, and recognize those who do (see sidebar).

When. The first two carbon plots were established and sampled on August 16, 2010, and the third was established and sampled on September 24, 2010.

Where. North and east of Elgin, Oregon, the Malmbergs' property consists of gently sloping grasslands with some patches of timber. Elevation is about 3600 feet (1100 meters) above sea level and average precipitation is about 15-20 inches (380-500 mm) annually. The predominant soil is a mollisol, Lookingglass silt loam.

Tony Malmberg during soil sampling on CRP ground.

Why. "We have an unlimited source of energy that's totally free," says Tony. "The sun. To maximize that free source of energy, our ecosystem process needs to be hitting on all four cylinders, that is the water cycle, mineral cycle (including carbon), energy flow, and community dynamics. Monitoring data provides me with measurable indications to confirm we are moving in the direction we want with our resource base."

For these experienced ranchers and graziers, establishing baseline monitoring was a natural first step with their recently purchased property. For the function of the ecosystem processes at the soil surface, they chose the Land EKG method developed by Charley Orchard ( "Land EKG provides the diagnostic test to know where we best focus our tune-up to get the ecosystem engine humming," says Tony.

"The carbon data tells us how much horsepower we’ve got under the hood, or under the soil surface in this case."

Soil carbon is a basic indicator of ecosystem function, water retention, and productivity. We used the Soil Carbon Coalition's plot specifications to co-locate permanent plots with the Land EKG transects that Charley Orchard set up and read.

"Acknowledging diverse social values, and meeting increasing demands for enhancing water cycling and carbon cycling can be important in marketing our grass fed beef," notes Tony. He regards both Land EKG and the monitoring of soil carbon change provided by the Soil Carbon Challenge to be important to his success.

John Cheever and Tony Malmberg consult the grazing plan prior to turning in cattle 23 years after the property was enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program

The monitoring, both above and below ground, may also provide education and policy guidance. "After setting up a Land EKG transect and reading it, you will never look at your landscape the same again. We learn to see the signs of our land health, or lack of it. This gives us a language to communicate, and a way of engaging with the public, with agencies, and with our main street community around ecosystem health."

One of the ways Tony hopes to engage with policy is by creating an example of a successful transition away from the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), in terms of land health, community health, and economics. The property, which the Malmbergs recently purchased, has long been used for grazing, and for wheat farming. In 1987, several hundred acres of the farm ground were enrolled in the new CRP, and seeded to perennial grasses.

Mapping using Google Earth

Google Earth is a free computer program that enables you to mark points and outline areas on a global map that is based on satellite imagery. You must be online in order to use it, and a faster connection helps.

Download the program from here:

The Google Earth User Guide can be accessed from the Help menu in Google Earth. Exploring it can give you some basic tips and skills for using the program, finding places, navigating, and so on. The following sections review how to set and edit a placemark or point, how to draw and edit a polygon or area, and how to send the resulting .kmz files to other people.

Creating a placemark

In Google Earth, navigate to where you want the placemark. Click the Add Placemark button at the top of your screen (with the yellow pushpin).

1. A window will appear, which you can move out of the way with your mouse, in which you can enter name, coordinates, style information, the height of the view, and any other info in the description window.

2. A pushpin will appear in the center of the 3D viewer, with a flashing box around it. You can position the pushpin with your mouse.

3. When you click OK on the window, the placemark is saved in your My Places folder (left hand side of the screen). Subsequently, you can navigate to this placemark by double-clicking on it. You can choose to reveal it or hide it using its checkmark box.

4. To edit the placemark after you have saved it, you can right click on it in Windows/Linux and choose Properties. This opens the window, where you can change its location, information, view, altitude and description. Click OK to save.

Creating and editing a polygon or area

To create a polygon or area, navigate so that the entire area of your polygon is in view. Click the Add Polygon icon to the right of the Add Placemark icon at the top of the screen.

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Soil Carbon Challenge design draft

An international prize competition to see how fast land managers can turn atmospheric carbon into soil organic matter. Open to any land manager, or group of land managers.

The purpose of the Challenge is to highlight in a thorough, localized, and public way the opportunity and the possibilities for turning atmospheric carbon into soil organic matter, and to get it happening.

An entry consists of one or more permanent plots.

We are considering a smallholder division, where management of the parcel is uniform, and it is less than 2 hectares, for which one permanent plot may suffice.

The Challenge runs for 10 years. Entries in 2010 will be judged in 2016 and final awards made 2020. The World Carbon Cup will go to the land manager who sequesters the most tons of C per hectare per year at the end of 10 years. There will be an additional prize for percentage increase. Baseline survey at year 0, remonitor at years 3, 6, and 10.

The Soil Carbon Coalition can offer help in finding sponsorships for the initial monitoring costs (currently running at about US$1000 for three plots, depending on travel costs), including some written, online, and video resources to highlight the benefits and the opportunity of growing soil organic matter, as well as methods for increasing it, and a list of organizations and local government agencies with specific interests in your area.

To keep your entry in the contest, remonitoring is required at 3 years, 6 years, and 10 years. To keep your entry viable, you must request additional monitoring at these intervals, and find sponsorship funding for it if necessary.

Entries baselined in 2010 will be scheduled for remonitoring in 2013, 2016, and 2020. Intermediate prizes will be awarded based on the 6-year monitoring.

Challenge scenario

scenario for Soil Carbon Challenge (this is a projected future possibility; it hasn't happened yet)

The Soil Carbon Challenge is an unusual partnership between 54 nonprofit organizations and associations across the globe, many of whom have been competing with each other in advocating strategies for stewardship of land and resources. The activity of the Challenge is monitoring rather than advocacy of particular methods. Its purpose is to recognize land managers who do an outstanding job of turning atmospheric carbon into soil carbon, achieve positive change through monitoring, and tell the story of soil organic matter.

In January 2011 the 29-member Competition Committee for the Soil Carbon Challenge met to finalize rules and protocols. Committee member Wayne Beck admitted, "This isn't about science, at least in the sense we've become accustomed to. It's about systems that can enhance the living world. There's lots of people out there who are throwing mud against a wall, to see what sticks. We're going to help them gauge their soil organic matter. But a scientist will try to predict what sticks, and then tell us why some of it didn't stick, or why some that did stick should not have."

The Soil Carbon Challenge or World Carbon Cup

Seeing the carbon/climate problem differently: why we need a soil carbon challenge

1. Technology alone, or guilt over technology, won't fix climate change. Fossil fuel emissions are only 3.4% of the annual flux of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (Lal 2008). Even with instantaneous and complete elimination of these emissions, it may take generations for atmospheric carbon dioxide to decline to what NASA scientist James Hansen calls safe levels (IPCC 2007a, 2007b).

Reducing fossil-fuel emissions may be a necessary part of long-term climate stability. But in the near term, emissions reductions would have little leverage on the factors of concern for IPCC scientists: positive radiative forcing driven principally by atmospheric carbon dioxide.

2. Taking responsibility means seeing the problem differently. The problem with carbon is that it's not a problem. It's a biologically driven cycle. It's a network of self-motivated creatures, most of them microscopic, powered by chemical energy from sunlight, who grow, strive, eat, multiply, respire, and die.

Most of our climate change ideas come from physical science. But biology runs the vast majority of the carbon cycle. Green plants take carbon from the atmosphere using solar energy and make the sugars and carbohydrates that fuel life and growth, and power every action, feeling, and thought. Most of this carbon is returned back into the atmosphere by oxidation, which releases energy: respiration, decay, and fire.

Fossil fuel deposits are the result of photosynthesis exceeding oxidation over a geological time scale. Soil organic matter—carbon compounds that are the residue of past life, the present habitat for underground biodiversity, and the substrate for future life—also stores a solar surplus, but on a shorter time scale.


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