Soil in the Headlines

A recurring post on this blog, Soil in the Headlines, collects a few of the ways soil is featuring in our lives and in our news.

Figure from this PLOS ONE article (#2 on the headline list!). Researcher's caption: "Variation in B. mycoides colony morphology due to the presence of 5 mm glass beads during incubation on PCA: with bead still in place (top); with bead removed (below)." doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081549.g005

Figure from this PLOS ONE article (#2 on the headline list!). Researcher’s caption: “Variation in B. mycoides colony morphology due to the presence of 5 mm glass beads during incubation on PCA: with bead still in place (top); with bead removed (below).”

Japan tries to contain 133,000 tons of Fukushima’s radioactive soil

According to Japanese Daily Press, the Japanese government earmarked $970 million to store soil contaminated by Fukushima’s nuclear energy plant disaster. With the soil collected and money set aside to store it, the next question is, who wants to have a radioactive soil containment facility in their backyard? So far, no one is volunteering.

Soil microbe displays intriguing and potentially useful growth patterns

A recently published article in PLOS ONE describes a soil bacteria’s response to physical change in its surroundings. The bactieria, Bacillus mycoides, reorganized themselves into growth patterned around physical obstructions in their environment. Beyond the, “ooo, neat!” factor, this new knowledge of the bacteria may be useful for Continue reading


Soil in the headlines

The lastest dirt on your and my (or perhaps just my) favorite Earth element:

Photo by John A. Kelley, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

  • Rather than rotting on asphalt, Oregon’s roadkill meet a useful fate. The northwestern state composts animals smashed by cars into plant-ready nutrients. Turning dead deer into good soil (High Country News)
  • As land is developed, hydroponics move into urban Africa. A look at soil-less cultivation in West Africa: Cote d’Ivoire: The Miracle of Gardening Without Soil (All Africa)
  • The lauded rover samples Mars’ planetary skin and scientists excitedly search for evidence of organic compounds. Curiosity rover finds organic compounds, but are they from Mars? (NBC News)
  • Following a dry summer, Iowa’s soil is still dried out because the fall also failed to deliver moisture. This may set the state and its farmers up for a challenging spring, with soil trying to overcome a water debt. As winter nears, Iowa soil moisture low (Omaha World Herald)
  • Over-medicated livestock raise concerned eyebrows from those watching the residual antibiotics leave the farm and enter soil and water. One study suggests microorganisms break down antibiotics in the soil and that the population of antibiotic-eating microbes grows along with livestock operating scale. Antibiotic-eating bug unearthed in soil (American Society of Agronomy)

Photo by John A. Kelley, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Frackonomics: the implications of cheap gas

At 5:30 on Tuesday another crowd settled in to a University of Wisconsin – Madison lecture hall for the final forum to foster public discourse on the state’s booming frac sand industry. This time, it wasn’t about Wisconsin’s sand, or who’s coming in to the state to mine it. This last forum, facilitated by the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, focused on what the state’s sand is helping to produce, cheap natural gas, and what that means for future energy consumption and associated climatic impacts.

On the docket was Phil Montgomery, chairperson of the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC), Greg Nemet, assistant professor of public affairs and environmental studies at UW-Madison, and Frank Greb, president of Energy Center of Wisconsin. Rather than go speaker-by-speaker, I’ll summarize the most thought-provoking insights of the evening. In contemplating the impact cheap natural gas on U.S. energy here is what these three men had to offer: Continue reading

Frickity frac: what is sand mining’s impact?

At the second of three forums on frac sand mining organized by the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s Nelson Institute, four interesting voices stood before another packed lecture hall. There was a representative of sand mining companies, an investigative journalist, a sociologist, and a groundwater specialist.

Each voice added context to the conversation Wisconsin is having as major energy companies move into the state. The Nelson Institute’s first forum two weeks ago, focused on why energy companies have pulled Wisconsin into the hydraulic fracturing industry: the vast amounts of a particular type of sand (frac sand) needed for fracking. This second forum sought to elucidate some of the impacts the state’s new industrial connections may have.

From bottom right, a conveyor carries sand from the crushing area to a wash plant tower to be washed and sorted by grain size at the Preferred Sands plant in Blair, Wis., on June 20, 2012. Lukas Keapproth/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

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Why the frack is Wisconsin in the energy game?

Wisconsin is suddenly a player in the national energy game. No, America’s dairyland doesn’t have newly discovered deposits of coal, oil, or natural gas. No, it’s not a leader in wind or solar power. Rather, Wisconsin is a valuable source of….sand. Yes, sand. The specific type of sand needed for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Wisconsin is in the middle of a sand rush because of increased use of the fracking method to extract natural gas. Given the state’s role as a sand supplier, there is a three-part public information series on hydraulic fracturing for Wisconsinites. The Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies is hosting the forums in Madison, they are live-streamed online and archived so that people all over the state and country can tune in.  The first session was this evening and it aimed to help Wisconsinites understand what fracking is and why it’s happening and also to address the role western Wisconsin is suddenly playing in this round of the national energy game.

In a sentence, hydraulic fracturing is a process that breaks up shale deep underground in order to access a trapped, dispersed deposits of natural gas. Sand is key to that process and I am going to discuss how Wisconsin came to claim ownership of most the sand frackers want to use, called frac sand. For more on fracking itself, see the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s short explainer piece, or, for way more than that, check out Propublica’s fracking series.

Wisconsin State Geologist James Robertson stood before a nearly full lecture hall this evening to answer four basic frac sand questions: Continue reading

For peat’s sake

British policymakers are worried. They are stewards to 15% of the world’s peatland, a percentage that is shrinking because of domestic use. The New York Times cited the chair of a British governmental peat taskforce earlier this month as saying with current harvest rates the United Kingdom could exhaust their peat supply within decades.

To protect their soggy, boggy places, Parliament proposed a ban on all horticultural peat use, a move that has Britain’s gardeners abuzz. The suggested ban requires eliminating amateur gardener use of peat by 2020 and commercial horticultural use by 2030.

Why would the United Kingdom completely ban what is, for gardeners, partially-decomposed organic gold? For the same three reasons many natural resources become regulated: carbon, water, and biodiversity.

Peat! On a hike in Glendalough, Ireland.

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The Physiology of Garden Love

When the days begin to warm, the gardener bides her time. Once the soil is also warm and the frost promises to hold off until fall, a new growing season can begin. The gardener wasn’t idle while her soil was frozen and covered in snow. She pored over seed catalogs and diagrammed the most efficient use of space or most beautiful arrangement of ornamentals. When only a few weeks remain before soil fully thaws, the gardener peels open fresh packets of seeds and tucks them into potting soil where they’ll become seedlings before braving the outdoors.

Seeds have thick protective coats housing an embryo inside that will eventually sprout to become roots and foliage. That protective coat prevents water from entering or exiting the seed and also limits its interaction with gases in the air. For a seed to sprout, it must shed the seed coat.

Tomatoes, kale, eggplant, leeks, broccoli, basil. Tasty recipes emerge from the soil, unbending their first stem as though letting out a slow yawn. Slowly, leaves take on their unique shape, texture, and scent. The gardener has anticipated the scent of fresh basil since plucking the last withered herbs in October. A tomato’s velvet stem reminds her of the supple fruit it will yield in July.

Temperature is crucial in shedding a seed coat. It isn’t simply that seeds need to be warmed, many seeds require warmer temperatures during the day and cooler temperatures at night. Holding a seed at a constantly warm temperature reduces germination rates and can lead to poor plant growth. Once a seed senses the proper temperature alternation, usually 5-10ºC difference between day and night, it sheds the seed coat and begins to interact with water, gases, and nutrients around it. Continue reading