05/23/2017

A Climate Change Solution Beneath Our Feet

Author: UC Davis | Published: May 17, 2017 

When we think of climate change solutions, what typically comes to mind is the transportation we use, the lights in our home, the buildings we power and the food we eat. Rarely do we think about the ground beneath our feet.

Kate Scow thinks a lot about the ground, or, more precisely, the soil. She’s been digging into the science of how healthy soils can not only create productive farmlands, but also store carbon in the ground, where it belongs, rather than in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

Looking across the landscape on a spring day at Russell Ranch Sustainable Agricultural Facility, most people would simply see a flat, mostly barren field. But Scow—a microbial ecologist and director of this experimental farm at the University of California, Davis—sees a living being brimming with potential. The soil beneath this field doesn’t just hold living things—it is itself alive.

Scow likens soil to the human body with its own system of “organs” working together for its overall health. And, like us, it needs good food, water and care to live up to its full potential.

Solutions beneath our feet

Farmers and gardeners have long sung the praises of soil. For the rest of us, it’s practically invisible. But a greater awareness of soil’s ability to sequester carbon and act as a defense against climate change is earning new attention and admiration for a resource most of us treat like dirt.

Soil can potentially store between 1.5 and 5.5 billion tons of carbon a year globally. That’s equivalent to between 5 and 20 billion tons of carbon dioxide. While significant, that’s still just a fraction of the 32 billion tons of carbon dioxide emitted every year from burning fossil fuels.

Soil is just one of many solutions needed to confront climate change.

But the nice thing about healthy soils, Scow said, is that creating them not only helps fight climate change—it also brings multiple benefits for agricultural, human and environmental health.

“With soil, there’s so much going on that is so close to us, that’s so interesting and multifaceted, that affects our lives in so many ways—and it’s just lying there beneath our feet,” she said.

Subterranean secrets 

Underground, an invisible ecosystem of bugs, or microorganisms, awaits. In fact, there are more microbes in one teaspoon of soil than there are humans on Earth. Many of them lie dormant, just waiting to be properly fed and watered.

A well-fed army of microbes can go to work strengthening the soil so it can grow more food, hold more water, break down pollutants, prevent erosion and, yes, sequester carbon.

“I love the word ‘sequestration,’” said Scow, who thinks the word is reminiscent of secrecy, tombs and encryption. “Soil is filled with microbes who are waiting it out. The conditions may not be right for them—it’s too dry or too wet, or they don’t have the right things to eat. They’re sequestered. They’re entombed. But if the right conditions come, they will emerge. They will bloom, and they will flourish.”

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