In general, statistical accuracy increases with the square root of sample size. Doubling your sensitivity and accuracy quadruples your cost. It's a power law, not a normal distribution, and it pushes us toward extremes.

In measuring soil carbon using traditional sampling, what this means is that the high achievers are easiest and cheapest to measure (circled red in the diagram below). A sampling scheme that is adequate for measuring a large change in soil carbon between an initial baseline and resampling, may not yield a significant result if the change turns out to be small.

DRAFT greenhouse gas calculator for grass-based cattle ranches, v.0.2

Here is a simple draft greenhouse gas calculator for grass and cattle producers, in Microsoft Excel format. This calculator differs from many in that it recognizes that soil, and soil biology, is a principal factor influencing the composition of the atmosphere. To judge or quantify such effects, site-specific measurements are needed, such as changes in soil carbon levels over time.

Map of measured soil carbon change

This is a mapping project for measured changes in soil carbon content over time (as well as Soil Carbon Challenge entries, in yellow). The purpose is not to aggregate "offsets" or to make broad predictions, but to show what's possible as verified by actual measurements. When the purpose is to show what is possible, rather than to generate a broad-scale prediction or quantify carbon offsets, questions of statistical reliability are less troubling.

Twitchell Island USGS project

In the Sacramento Delta of California, a freshwater tidal marsh thick with tules and other marsh vegetation formed carbon-rich peat soils 60 feet deep in places. In the 1870s, farmers began to build dikes, drain the marshes, burn the tules, and farm the peat soils.

With the peat exposed to air, it oxidized rapidly. The soil surface descended below sea level, sometimes by inches per year. The levees were reinforced, and the water table lowered some more by pumping, so that farming could continue. By the 1990s the soil surface on some of these peat lands was down to 15, 20, and even 25 feet below sea level. The biological crater left by the oxidation of peat soils in the Delta had grown huge, about the size of the debris flow from the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980.

If you double the height of a levee or dike, you quadruple the water pressure on it. If or when these levees fail, salt water from San Francisco Bay will fill the crater, compromising the water supplies for about two-thirds of California, including much of the irrigated agriculture of the central valley.

About ten years ago the US Geological Survey began a small experiment to see if this loss due to oxidation could be reversed. On Twitchell Island, about 15 feet below sea level, they flooded the land shallowly, and put in some clumps of tules and cattails. As the plants grew, they raised the water level. After ten years, this experiment has built two feet of peat soils that you can stand on, and recording a carbon accrual of 10 metric tons C per ha per year.

Unscrambling the egg: self-motivated organisms and the work of the biosphere

It is often said that you can't unscramble an egg. An egg has a wholeness or integrity, a poised arrangement of membranes and layers. You cannot reverse the breaking, mixing, and cooking, even with the most advanced technology and equipment.

But a hen can. Feed her a scrambled egg or two, and she can lay a new, whole egg. It may not be instant, but expensive technology is not required. If the egg is fertile, it can become a new hen, who can unscramble more eggs, and so on.

It's important to remember the relationship here, and who has the power. The hen wants to eat it, and produce a new egg, for reasons that are hers, not ours. Like all the biosphere's organisms, she is self-motivated. Trying to force her may cause problems for both her and us. If we want the egg unscrambled, we invite her.

We've got a scrambled egg situation on a global scale: biodiversity loss, extensive land degradation, water shortages, acidifying oceans, and too much heat-trapping carbon in the atmosphere. But we've framed it in such a way that the hen isn't even in the picture.

Of all these large problems, it was perhaps inevitable that carbon in the atmosphere took center stage in the 1970s and after. The data about rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were clear. Physical sciences were dominant in climate questions, and the scope and variability of the biological carbon cycle were only beginning to emerge.

That transparent carbon dioxide gas absorbed and emitted long-wave radiation, thus trapping heat, had been discovered in the 1800s. By the 1960s it was clear that atmospheric carbon dioxide was increasing steadily. But it took another generation, as well as a massive and varied accumulation of evidence, before most scientists and the public began to accept the possibility that climate could change as a result of human activities, and that fossil fuel burning was the main driver.

System leverage

Skeptics of anthropogenic global warming often attribute the power to change climate to solar output (astrophysics).

Most climate activists place the power for change with fossil fuel emissions (technology). But more are now recognizing that changing technology, such as emissions reductions, lacks near-term leverage on the whole system and on atmospheric carbon. Being proactive won't help much, because the system is too narrowly defined.

Reflecting more solar energy into space, or air capture of carbon using technology, is attractive to some because it corresponds to a widespread technical orientation, as well as frustration or impatience with the social, political, and leverage issues around emissions reductions. But these "geoengineering" possibilities are consistently accused of being band-aids. They do not address the causes of climate change, or the buildup of atmospheric carbon and other greenhouse gases.

The earth system, such as the biological carbon cycle, has been invisible or inscrutable as a source of change. But many are beginning to see the influence or potential influence of soil carbon or peat carbon, and forest carbon, and the tremendous power of carbon cycling.

We do not influence the biological carbon cycle as directly as we influence coal burning, but our influence is strong and immediate--though not as predictable and mechanical as international agreements, markets, or policy approaches seem to demand. The remaining divisions in science, for example into biological and physical sciences, haven't helped us understand the power of carbon cycling.

Wichita, Kansas funds $100 acre for grass plantings in watershed

The City of Wichita, Kansas is now paying farmers in one of its watershed areas $100 an acre to put in grass. This is an incentive handled by the Cheney Lake Watershed to improve water quality for the city by working with watershed landowners.

This is yet another example of local policy leadership on water cycling, and an example of ecosystem services payments where cost and benefit are nearby. The article quoted below is by Lisa French.

"Like most farmers, David Friesen has a few acres of cropland that are always difficult to farm. In David’s case, his field near the Ninnescah River has a tendency to stay wet. Getting a crop planted and harvesting the crop are both a challenge. With a new program offered by the Cheney Lake Watershed, David is going to be paid $100/acre to seed a little more than 5 acres to Eastern gamagrass for hay or grazing. As David says, “It looks like it’s a no-brainer.”

"The Cheney Lake Watershed is now offering one-time incentive payments of $100/acre, funded by the City of Wichita, for crop acres seeded to permanent vegetation. The species used depend on the producer’s goals, soil types, and site condition. Eligible land must have five years of cropping history and must be located within the watershed east of Highway 14. Land in this area is more likely to contribute sediment to Cheney Reservoir than other areas of the watershed.

Vote for grasslands at the Manchester Guardian, to raise awareness

Tony Lovell and Bruce Ward from Australia made a presentation about grassland carbon to the Manchester Report, a project of the Guardian newspaper in the UK. They report that it was enthusiastically received, and was new information to many.

The Manchester report is running a poll for the top 10 solutions to climate change. You can vote here before July 23, and no registration is necessary:

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.

Allan Savory on climate change

Last year Allan Savory wrote the paper attached below, A Global Strategy for Addressing Global Climate Change, which clarifies the importance of biosphere processes to our situation, and to any improvement. To download, right click and select Save Target As, or Ctrl-click on a Mac.

"Only through uniting and diverting all the resources required to deal with climate change and land degradation can we avert unimaginable tragedy. We have all the money we need. All we cannot buy is time."


Subscribe to RSS - article