With rising commodity prices bringing more farm land under cultivation, a University of Iowa researcher is checking to see whether soil erosion may also be on the rise.
Thanos Papanicolaou, professor in the UI College of Engineering Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has received a three-year, $642,000 federal grant through the University of Northern Iowa to study agricultural soil erosion and the carbon cycle in Iowa. Papanicolaou is also a faculty research engineer at IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering with a secondary appointment at the Iowa Public Policy Center.
Funded by NASA, the Carbon Cycle program will test the development of methods and models of carbon budgets at a smaller, regional scale, which will eventually be applied at larger scales. The proposed analysis is a critical component of any system for determining carbon credits that may be developed in the future, according to Papanicolaou.
The project, involving collaboration between the UI, the University of Northern Iowa and the USDA National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, investigates how soil erosion may be threatening climate mitigation policies within the state and Midwest.
“Recently, the production of bioenergy crops has surged due to U.S. government policies calling for an increase in locally produced biofuels to lessen United States dependency on foreign oil supplies and help mitigate the burning of fossil fuels,” said Papanicolaou. “For example, there is an increase in corn acreage, as well as cash corn prices, in the Midwest because of its use in ethanol production.
“With more acreage under cultivation, there exists the potential for further soil degradation through tillage-induced erosion and soil loss, not to mention elevated carbon dioxide emissions from the soil and downstream water quality issues. These changes cannot go unchecked; therefore a sound, scientifically verified, management strategy must be developed that accounts for all stakeholder concerns,” he said.
Papanicolaou, who serves as Donald E. Bently Faculty Fellow of Engineering, will conduct field studies of soil carbon sequestration under different land-uses and crop rotations while UI engineering professors Charles Stanier and Greg Carmichael will conduct simulated atmospheric carbon dioxide and isotope analyses to obtain carbon dioxide fluxes under different hydrologic and crop scenarios.
The researchers envision that the project will establish a foundation upon which to build research capacity within the Midwest. Some research will quantify the links between carbon dioxide fluxes, land use change, hydrologic variability and carbon sequestration potential, as well as economic and societal drivers. Other research will produce a regional carbon budget and, ultimately, develop a program of national stature for carbon cycle studies in intense agricultural systems.