Climate change and soil: sink or source?


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Peatlands, or bogs, are wetlands where partially decomposed vegetation accumulates saturated in water. The soil is very rich and productive and contains huge amounts of carbon (flickr). 

Julia Poska| November 29, 2018

The world’s soils hold massive amounts of carbon from decomposed plants and animals. In this way the soil acts as a sink, storing carbon that could otherwise end up in the atmosphere, but soil is a source of carbon emissions.

Two studies published this month highlight just how helpful and harmful the the soil’s carbon storage capacity might be in the face of climate change.

The first, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesexamined the changing role of peatlands, also known as bogs or mires, in the carbon cycle. According to author Qianlai Zhuang of Purdue University, peatlands cover about 3 percent of the Earth’s surface but contain 30 percent of soil carbon. This major sink, though, has begun to release large amounts of carbon, too.

When peatlands are drained for human uses like agriculture or mining, they release some of that carbon into the air. The rate of carbon loss is predicted to increase with climate change, even for untouched peatlands.

Northern-hemisphere peatlands in Canada, Siberia and Southeast Asia have already begun releasing significant amounts of carbon, but Zhuang and PhD candidate Sirui Wang found that Amazonian peatlands may soon follow suit, according to a Purdue University media release. The researchers estimate that by the end of the century, peatlands in that area could release an amount of carbon equal to 5 percent of current annual emissions worldwide.

The second study, published in Nature Climate Change, found increased capacity for carbon storage deep within the soil. Much of the soils carbon is stored in a dissolved form; the carbon leaches downwards in the water and attaches to minerals over 6-feet underground.

Little is known about this method of storage, but Washington State University researcher Marc Kramer and Oliver Chadwick from the University of California Santa Barbara have looked at it closely and believe humanity could take advantage of the process to bury more atmospheric carbon deep inside the earth. Unfortunately, they believe climate change will limit this capacity in tropical rainforests, currently the best locations for dissolved carbon storage.

Check out our 2018 Iowa Climate Statement to learn more about the impacts of climate change right here at home.

The Iowa Organic Conference in Iowa City next week


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Organic corn like this one is served popped throughout the conference  (flickr). 

Julia Poska| November 15, 2018

While University of Iowa students are away for Thanksgiving break next week, Iowa’s organic farmers and advocates with gather in the Iowa Memorial Union for workshops, food and community.

The Iowa Organic Conference begins Sunday, Nov. 18 with a 6pm reception in the IMU ballroom. The following morning, keynote speaker David Montgomery, a professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington, will speak while attendees eat breakfast at the opening ceremony. His talk, titled Growing a Revolution: Bringing our Soil Back to Life, will discuss ways to enhance seemingly hopeless soils.

Attendees can attend workshops throughout the day and visit around 40 vendors in the main lounge. Highlights include workshops led by Liz Carlisle, author of Lentil Underground, and Iowa journalist Art Cullen, who wrote a series of Pulitzer-winning editorials about Iowa’s water pollution.

Breakfast and lunch are included in the registration fee, and will feature organic fare locally sourced from the Iowa City area. Snacks will be available throughout the day as well.

The event is sponsored by the Iowa State University Organic Program and the University of Iowa Office of Sustainability. Registration is still open for $120.

 

Water pollution Iowa’s top science policy issue


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Streams carry farm pollution into the Missippi River, which leads to the Gulf of Mexico (flickr). 

Julia Poska| November 2, 2018

In light of upcoming midterm elections, Popular Science wants voters to be informed about science policy,  even if campaigners are not. The national magazine recently released a list of each U.S. state’s most pressing science policy issue.

Unsurprisingly, Iowa’s biggest challenge is to reduce pollution from farms. Because intensive agriculture takes place on over two-thirds of Iowa’s land, nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous leak from the state’s ubiquitous farm fields into waterways at alarming rates.

The list cites a University of Iowa study from earlier this year, which found that Iowa’s nitrogen runoff into the Mississippi River rose 47 percent over the last five years. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, initiated in 2013, aimed to reduce this rate 45 percent in that same time span.

Nutrient loss degrades soil quality for growers, and has created legal tensions between farmers and local waterworks. The loss creates issues far downstream as well. An overabundance of nutrients  in the Gulf of Mexico has created a “dead zone” where low-oxygen conditions are inhospitable to aquatic life, which threatens the area’s fishing industry.

The Nutrient Reduction strategy pushes conservation practices like planting cover crops on otherwise bare fields, diversifying land use, and creating buffers along waterways out  to farms, but adoption of such practices is still too low.

The next round of political leaders will need continue searching for a solution, something Iowa voters should take into consideration.  As Popular Science wrote, “Even if it never surfaces on the campaign trail, science is always on the ballot.”

 

Iowa Pulitzer winner says ‘Welcome to climate change, Iowa-style’


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Cullen details the consequences of climate-fueled floods and heatwaves for Iowa farms (flickr).

Julia Poska | October 26, 2018

“Welcome to climate change, Iowa-style” -Art Cullen

Over the course the current midterm election campaigns, Iowan farm fields have faced high heatwaves, record-breaking rainfall, flooding and unseasonable cold. Experts say such extreme events are fueled by climate change.

Pulitzer Prize winner Art Cullen, editor of Storm Lake, Iowa’s Storm Lake Times, published a new editorial on The Guardian last week to share his thoughts on the matter.

“Few politicians in the five states around here are talking about regulating agriculture in an era of warmer and wetter nights and long droughts,” he wrote. “Yet farmers are paying attention.”

Cullen based his argument in the findings of regional climate researchers. An Iowa State scientist predicted Iowa’s recent floods 20 years ago. Someone at the University of Minnesota predicts Iowa’s corn yield will halve by 2070. An agronomist, also from Iowa State, said soil erosion is making corn starchier and less valuable.

To combat the change, farmers have historically increased drainage tile. Cullen cited the environmental consequences of that adaption, mainly low oxygen due to excess nutrients in the Gulf of Mexico, and water quality issues within the state.

As the situation has gotten worse and awareness has risen, farmers have started making positive changes, too, Cullen said.  They’re looking at sustainability reports, cover cropping to reduce erosion, and rotating diverse crops and livestock.

Cullen calls for policy makers to “catch up” and provide more financial aid to help farmers implement sustainable practices and even retire land.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On The Radio- Crop enhancement at night


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Photo taken at a farm in Colorado (David Mulhern/flickr)

Kasey Dresser | October 15, 2018

This weeks segment looks at a study that tracks how nighttime airflow can affect crops.

Transcript: 

A new study in Illinois aims to improve crops by tracking how air moves at night.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

When the earth loses heat at night, sometimes cool layers of mostly still air form just above the surface. These pockets of air are called stable boundary layers, and scientists still know very little about how they flow.

They do know, however, that the subtle movements of stable boundary layers have important implications for agriculture. Understanding nighttime air flow could help farmers decide when to use anti-frost fans for example, and could minimize drift of aerosol pesticides.

Researchers from the University of Illinois and the University of South Carolina will track this elusive phenomenon by releasing smoke and then using lasers to measure how it flows. They will also log atmospheric conditions like cloud cover and temperature to learn what exactly causes stable boundary layers to form.

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation, began mid-September and will run through November 15th.

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.

On The Radio- Farmers are profiting from environmental conservation


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Kasey Dresser | October 7, 2018

This weeks segment talks about an incentive for farmers to be more environmentally friendly. 

Transcript:

Farmers are finding profitable ways to help the environment.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Agriculture practices are creating environmental challenges for our water, air and soil.

Public concern about the environment has led to increased adoption of conservation efforts. However, many conservation methods are costly.  A new study from the Environmental Defense Fund is providing more options for farmers to find profitable ways to help the environment.

One of the main ways that farmers are able to improve the health of their land is through the use of cover crops. Cover crops keep topsoil intact and improve the health of crops overall. Other methods include diversifying crop rotation and switching to more environmentally friendly herbicides.

These conservation practices come with an initial expense, but have proven to be cost effective overall for many farmers in the Midwest.

Three participating farmers provided a transparent look into their financial gain since implementing these conservation methods. While they experienced some profit, they all expect greater gains in the future as they gain more experience.

For more information, visit Iowa Environmental Focus dot org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E Mason.

Farm conservation on the line in 2018 Farm Bill


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At risk USDA conservation programs include provisions to promote sustainable stewardship of forest and pasture on farms (flickr).

Julia Poska | September 28, 2018

Farmers nationwide are waiting anxiously for the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, a crucial piece of legislation that authorizes U.S. Department of Agriculture programs and funding for research in agriculture and food.

The current bill expires Sept. 30. If congress can not settle on a new bill by then, funding for those conservation, nutrition, and rural development programs, among others, could be lost for a time.

A conference committee of both House of Representatives and Senate representatives are currently working out the differences between the draft bills proposed by each chamber in June. The Senate draft is widely regarded as friendlier to conservation.

One of the House’s most controversial proposals is to cut the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which provides contractual support for people who actively mange agricultural land or forest for conservation on their property.

The House bill proposes folding the CSP’s “best features” into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a similar program that covers some cost for conservation practices on farms.

Critics say this move would eliminate the advanced  conservation practices the CSP promotes, and totally cuts funding for working lands. They believe the CSP is necessary because it allows for long-term conservation efforts, whereas EQIP deals with one-time practice establishments.

Conservation practices like cover cropping and on-farm forestry ease the stress agriculture can put on our natural resources, but they can be expensive for farmers. USDA programs provide critical resources to ensure eco-friendly farms can still turn profit.

Groups like the Nature Conservancy and Natural Association of Conservation Districts are actively advocating for the conference committee to maintain or increase conservation funding in their final version of the bill.