Tuesday, February 10, 2009

terra what?

I apologize if I upset anyone by posting about the immediacy of global warming yesterday. Goodness knows we already have enough to worry about without having to be concerned about the planet as well. Unfortunately, no matter what happens with the economic situation, we and our children still expect to wake up here every morning so that appears to make it the most important concern of all.

James Lovelock mentioned carbon sequestration in the interview so I went back to look up what I'd remembered reading about a novel concept, even though it's very old, you may not have heard about.

The Amazonian rainforest has some of the globe's richest soil that can transform poor soil into highly fertile ground. Scientists have a method to reproduce this soil - known as terra preta, or Amazonian dark earths - and say it can pull substantial amounts of carbon out of the increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere, helping to prevent global warming. That's because terra preta is loaded with so-called bio-char. Terra preta is soil that has been enhanced by black carbon, derived from charcoal, and other organic matter.

It is estimated that as much as 10 to 20% of the soils in the Amazon basin are terra preta soils. Only after realizing these numbers did archaeologists finally understand how there had been a sufficient agricultural base to support the vast ancient civilizations in the Amazon basin, civilizations that, until recently, had largely been written off as myth. Of course, we'd be somebody else's myth too if the plagues had wiped out all of us instead of only 90% back in 1300AD.

The super-fertile soil was produced thousands of years ago by indigenous populations using slash-and-char methods instead of slash-and-burn. Slash-and-char, on the other hand, actually reduces greenhouse gases by sequestering huge amounts of carbon for thousands of years and substantially reducing methane and nitrous oxide emissions from soils.

Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University, who has written books and numerous articles about bio-char says, "The result is that about 50 percent of the biomass carbon is retained and by sequestering huge amounts of carbon, this technique constitutes a much longer and significant sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide than most other options, making it a powerful tool for long-term mitigation of climate change. In fact we have calculated that up to 12 percent of the carbon emissions produced by human activity could be offset annually if slash-and-burn were replaced by slash-and-char."

In addition, many biofuel production methods, such as generating bioenergy from agricultural, fish and forestry waste, produce bio-char as a byproduct. "The global importance of a bio-char sequestration as a byproduct of the conversion of biomass to bio-fuels is difficult to predict but is potentially very large," he added.

Applying the knowledge of terra preta to contemporary soil management also can reduce environmental pollution by decreasing the amount of fertilizer needed, because the bio-char helps retain nitrogen in the soil as well as higher levels of plant-available phosphorus, calcium, sulfur and organic matter. The black soil also does not get depleted, as do other soils, after repeated use.

"In other words, producing and applying bio-char to soil would not only dramatically improve soil and increase crop production, but also could provide a novel approach to establishing a significant, long-term sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide."

So it really could be done. What do you think? Are we wise enough yet as a race to actually do something constructive to not only heal the earth but make her more beautiful and fruitful too?


Seraphine said...

of course we're wise enough to improve on nature.
if we weren't, earth would still be pristine instead of nicely divided into concrete and asphalt sections.
without help, nature wouldn't be orderly at all!

Anonymous said...

I think it's a great idea from an ecological standpoint, but one that will never see the light of day in this country. That's because it would be impossible for the agri-corporations to own (read control, hoard, and profiteer) from this resource. The agri-corp answer in this case is to genetic engineering of crops themselves. My apologies for the cynicism, but this is an age-old recurring theme in Western civilization.

Mary Ellen said...

I somewhat agree with Spart, the agri-corporations will take as much from this earth as they can and when they've destroyed it, they will walk away with their pockets full of money. In this world, money always trumps ecology...which is why we are paying the price for years of pollution and the destruction of our rain forests and other natural resources.

BTW, you have nothing to apologize for! Your posts are great and there's nothing I love more than a post that makes us think. There's nothing wrong with someone disagreeing with you...Lord knows that I've made my share of enemies in the blogosphere, but that doesn't keep me from holding firm to my convictions. You have to be true to yourself, don't you think?

You're the best, kiddo. Don't change a thing!

CDP said...

What a great post. I'd never heard of bio-char, and now I learned something.

Randal Graves said...

Are we wise enough yet as a race to actually do something constructive to not only heal the earth but make her more beautiful and fruitful too?

No, mainly for the reason spartacus gave. If someone can't privately own it for profit, the odds of it happening are lessened a whole hell of a lot.

Nunly, I agree with you, but you're wrong. No, you're right, but I disagree. Let's disagree to agree.

La Belette Rouge said...

I am afraid, to answer your question, that we are not wise enough. I think like with the credit/mortgage crisis that until things get really bad nothing will change.

Kvatch said...

So it really could be done. What do you think?

I agree big time with Spartacus. Accordingly, all the advanced techniques we use to attack the problem of global warming will come to nothing without one additional notion: We must all make living on less, consuming less, using less energy, having less babies our personal responsibility. That is the only way to overcome the dominance of corporations in the debate.

Lover of Life said...

Sounds good to me. When do we start?

The beauty of blogs are that each one is different. I liked that you educated us on yours yesterday. Yes, we have plenty to be worried about, but we can't change unless we know what to change (and then who to push to get it done.) I have my link to the White House right on my bookmarks bar.

susan said...

sera - Sounds kind of like a chess board, doesn't it? I wonder who the pawns are?

spartacus - You can be cynical. In the circumstances cynicism could be seen as the only rational response while we're outside making charcoal in the back yard.

nunley - It's true. Greed makes no rational sense but it seems to be fundamental to our make-up.

I only apologized because I felt bad for posting about something that's depressing. I see the earth sweating us out of her system as the nasty infection we appear to have become.

cdp - It really is interesting to read about. It isn't just charcoal in soil but a complex mixture that includes organisms that might not do well in our climate. There are very distinct beds of the stuff 6+ feet deep right next to tracts of unrefined soil.

randal - If they could figure out a way to have us pay for the air we breathe they'd do that. They're working on the water.

btw - Would you two please find somewhere else to not argue?

belette - I think we've been suckered, non? Encore un fois aussi..

kvatch - You're right. It's not people but what people claim as necessities. Another person born in America? Okay, go ahead and put that order through for 6 cars, 4 televisions, multiple washers, dryers, dishwashers, garbage disposals..

lol - Knowledge is power.. maybe not enough but every little bit helps.

linda said...

thank you for sharing this info, something I would most likely not have read or heard about otherwise...and don't apologize for your post ... how could saying it like it is be something you should apologize for? I think it's fantastic to read information like this told in a way I can actually get, not in jargon made to be impossible to understand without a doctorate in the subject!

it is all very sad the way things are going and how nothing is being done...no thing at all...now that the price of gas is down, the sale of SUV's and pickups is up again, the bigger and gassier the better! sigh...

susan said...

linda - I love finding strange and interesting things to share and since I seem to spend a lot of time off the beaten track it's especially fun to come back with a prize you enjoyed.

People in general really are pretty crazy, aren't they?

Seraphine said...

a chess board indeed!
the pawns are the ones who protect the king and queen, by sacrificing themselves for the "greater good." in other words, by being indispensible and dispensible at the same time.
in times of crisis, when the lowly pawn is escorted from play, his lament of "i've been rooked" falls unheeded upon uncertain ears.

lindsaylobe said...

Another interesting post to add to your previous one on global warming. The trend to organic farming is leading the way and in itself already exceeds all other forms of carbon soil sequestration -but “biochar” sounds amazing doesn’t it!

As I understand it as part of the process you need to add a fertilizer (preferably organic) since the enhanced resultant porous charcoal absorbs existing soil nutrients which would otherwise make the soil less fertile.

Presumably the ancients added left over organic matter from prior crops mixed in with the charcoal to make up the potent mixture which so enriched the soil.

As far as I can gather it is the added porous nature of the charcoal which allows it to retain fertilizers and release them more slowly which is the advantage over other forms of farming. The slower pace of absorption means less interference with the water table and with less run offs etc.

However reading about all the other benefits you mentioned such as the creation of the large “sink” for storing the carbon is an exciting prospect, as well I note, it’s potential to dramatically improve crop yields.

Hopefully there will be a meeting of the minds with farmers, scientists and engineers to determine or examine the merits of adding "biochar" to the soil soon.

I remain optimistic (but far less so for the USA for some of the reasons mentioned) overall that eventually we can farm the land in a manner that will allow it to last for ever; one that respects our partner, Mother Nature since there exists more than enough arable land to yield sufficient food to avoid food shortages for now and into the future if we use it wisely.

Best wishes

Pagan Sphinx said...

We should've been ready a long time ago! It may happen eventually that these sciences are taken seriously, but it's going very slowly and soon it will be too late.

It takes leadership and the governments have to support it. Even if there was profit to be had. At least please find a way not to screw us both economically and environmentally.

Lisa said...


susan said...

sera - As Aesop said 'Though this may be play to you, tis death to us.'

lindsay - There seems to be some reasonable evidence to support the theory that terra preta soils might have been deliberately made by people modifying the soils of their dwelling sites by mulching and compost.

Charles Mann who wrote a book called 'Good Earth' starts out describing in great detail just how stunningly bad things are: '7.5 million acres degraded worldwide from compaction, erosion and deforestation (according to the most comprehensive report of its kind, which is now 17 years old…). From America’s breadbasket in the Midwest where $400,000 satellite-guided tractors literally take the breath out the soil by squeezing out all the air, to wrong-headed one-size-fits-all Maoist farm policies turned the Loess Plateu, one of the most fertile places on the planet, into “arguably the worst soil erosion in the world,” it is a devastating picture of agricultural folly.

He travels to the African Sahel, where drought has turned lush savanna into desert badland. Then to the rainforests of South America where fields wrested by slash and burn go sterile in a few years as the meager stash of nutrients, which had been locked up in the trees, washes away in the thin soil. Add to this the over-use of nitrogen fertilizer (too much can turn soil acidic, with run-off causing marine “dead zones” ) and it’s bad to worse.'

Christoph Steiner, then of the University of Bayreuth, reported that simply adding crumbled charcoal and condensed smoke to typically bad tropical soils caused an “exponential increase” in the microbial population—kick-starting the underground ecosystem that is critical to fertility. Tropical soils quickly lose microbial richness when converted to agriculture. Charcoal seems to provide habitat for microbes—making a kind of artificial soil within the soil—partly because nutrients bind to the charcoal rather than being washed away. Tests by a U.S.-Brazilian team in 2006 found that terra preta had a far greater number and variety of microorganisms than typical tropical soils—it was literally more alive…

I've copied and pasted most of the above but just typing 'terra preta' into a Google search turns up lots of exciting information.

pagan sphinx - I'm not at all sure our current crop of leaders are ready for anything of this sort - pulling the profit motive out of growing food or anything else - but people like us certainly are.

lisa - I know.

lindsaylobe said...

susan - Thanks for all the additional info that seems to make sense for the most part although I gather it remains subject to more research testing.

I found the original article written by Mann which was posted in national geographic in Feb, or at least extracts which included what you pasted in your comment reply.

My more positive note to your question living here in Australia was reinforced by remarks by Jarred Diamond when he talked about Australia and what had changed from 40 years ago when he was last here. It was all about the Land, he said, the new spirit within the country that gave grounds for optimism, evident with over 4000 government funded land care Groups which ensure farms are not only sustainable, but also set aside corridors of up to 12% of the land as sanctuaries for nature.

In Malawi they have benefited from subsidization for fertilizer and high tech seeds which cost the Government $ 60 million – a lot of money in country whose per capita income is only $ 250.

We helped fund maze purchases in prior years when the crop failed and peple were starving within the community we support but more recently crop yields have been so good that they have become a net exporter for the first time in several decades.

But sometimes the fertilizer is washed away with heavy rains and hence I have a keen interest in any alternative farming that to give a better outcome.

Best wishes

susan said...

lindsay - I'm glad I was able to provide you with some information you weren't privy to. You'll be bound to share it more widely than I can and it's good to know that I helped at least a little.

Best wishes.