Tuesday, December 4, 2012

#soils2012: Soil solutions for diverse landscapes

Such an amazing array of diverse soil stories. From carbon and climate change, to soil Forensics. From nitrogen and Greenhouse Gas Emissions, to soil education and culture. New Zealand and Australian Soil Societies sure put on a show!

Nathan and I are at Soil Science 2012 this week. This is possibly our last conference with the ANU Soil Team (Helen King, Zoe Read and Daniela Carnovale), and we are having a blast! There is just so many amazing projects out there, each trying to save the world in their own way. I am not really sure I even have a favourite talk yet! :) It is really great to see some practical solutions to some really complicated soil, agricultural, mining and environmental problems.

We'll write up a Synopsis of our favourite talks after the conference. For now, if you are interested, follow #soils2012 on Twitter or the Soil Science Australia Facebook page for updates.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

So long and thanks for all the thesis: science is a team effort

I submitted my PhD just over a couple of weeks ago (YAY!), have done my final seminar, and now waiting for the examination. It has been a long time in the making, and I am chuffed that I am getting closer to the end of the journey.

Whilst many people say a PhD is something you do alone, in many ways it really is a team effort. Good science is the culmination of many people, many collaborators, and many supporters. Whilst one person may take the lead, there are many people on the front line in the science and behind the scenes that are integral to the outcomes. Contributors to science may include: supervisors and specialists in the field providing advice and direction, funders, industry requiring research, technicians, statisticians, research institution staff, peer reviewers, support and love from friends and family. Everyone who is involved in a researchers life is important in some way. Whether it is a positive (encouragement from someone at a conference) or negative (a harrowing paper review) experience, everyone is important in enabling a robust scientific outcome. And with examination and further peer review of my work, it will only improve more :)

And because my PhD is group effort, there are many people I need to thank. Each of these people helped me in some way, and provided a way for me to discover something new in soil science. Whether it was through patience, guidance, chocolate, fun, statistics, soil chemistry, or a shoulder to cry on, these people really made all the difference in a 'team effort' for research and discovery!

These are the amazing people who helped me along my PhD Journey:

Immense gratitude to my supervisors Ben Macdonald (CSIRO), Richard Greene (ANU), Ian White (ANU), and John Field (ANU), each of whom helped and guided me in a different way.

This project would not have been possible without Barrick (Cowal) Gold Mine and associated research partners. Particular thanks goes out to Garry Pearson, Richard Savage, David McKenzie and Mal Carnegie and The Environmental Review panel for ongoing support, interest and flexibility.

This thesis would have been much less ‘interesting’ without Lorna Fitzsimons. I appreciate all her time, energy, assistance, and most importantly, her support.

My love of statistics has gone from 0 to 100% with the assistance of Emlyn Williams.

Plant Services and Steven Dempsey were not only bemused that plants did actually grow in my soil, they were also amazing with glasshouse access and maintenance.

Critical access to the Southern Cross University laboratories, editing and advice would have never happened without the understanding of Vanessa Wong.

The endless reviewing would not have been possible without Jane Aiken, Andy Scott, Eric Crasswell, Ram Dalal (mid-term review) and anonymous reviewers. Particular thanks to my editing brother-in-law, Fergus Gratton.

There were many supportive academics on my path, but those who stand out the most include: the UWA Team (Andy Fourie and Mark Tibbett) for believing in me, guidance and support; Clive Kirkby for help with microbiology methods; Robin Tennant-Wood; Rob Loch; David Tongway; and anyone who answered my emails and phone calls.

Thank you to Fenner School staff. Malcolm Gill is particularly appreciated for his role as my mentor. Support from Steve Dovers, Geoff Cary, Sue Holzknecht, Janette Lindesay, Suzanne Mendes was most appreciated. Cathy Gray, Piers Bairstow, Di Jackobasch, Kevin Mahoney, Tony Ngudu and Clive Hilliker are simply amazing. Chris McElhinny will always be remembered as an inspiration and mentor.

Chats, never-ending support, morning and afternoon tea, and walks would not have been possible without my fellow PhD friends: Nathan Weber, Zoe Read, Kevin Jeanes, Daniela Carnovale, Eriita Jones, Brenda Moon, Marwan El Hassan, Kiri Whan, Jie-Lian Beh, Baihua Fu, Sarah Goldin, Melissa  Lovell and Carola Kuramotto. I want to say a special thank you to Andi Halliday, Lyndsey Vivian and Helen King who were always there, no matter what.  I am overwhelmed to have met so many amazing people.

Thank you to my patient friends, especially: Ainslee French, Bron Jones, Annie Sanderson, Kim Foster, Andrew Hicks, Ed Wright, Jola Samoc, Cheney Brew, Graham London, Matt Fussell, Greg Leves, Julie Osmond, Jenna Thornton and Shumin Lin.

My lab pain was reduced with thanks to: Andrew Higgins, Alice McRorie, Todd Bertwell, Lachlan James, Jo Seng, Liz Warden, Eddy Collett and Hannah Selmes. Bianca Bauer and Sarah Hill also got to have fun with my soils.

My family have all been incredibly supportive. My wonderful parents-in-law, Lianne and Alastair, have always been enthusiastic and interested. My sister understands this journey more than anyone, and I have valued her support immensely - coffee at The Gods was the best, Alli. A source of calm was from my Mum, who is always good at grounding me. Angus, you always managed to stay positive, accepting and supportive of the whole journey. Thank you.

Of course, there are so many more people out there that supported me in some way. Whether it was Twitter #phdchat-ers, Thesis Whisperer, coffee with Deb, online resources, an email from someone giving me advice... it was all super amazing and essential to get to the end. Thank you, one and all :)

I hope to post my Final PhD seminar on soilduck soon :)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sunday Soil Scientist: Adrianna

Meet Adrianna Marchand:  traveller, social ecologist, systems thinker, hole digger, soil maven.

Why soils?  Well, this is a constant invigorated by my passion and wonder for a dynamic, complex habitat that is as resilient as it is fragile, especially in human hands.

How I came to be a soil scientist shares a path with the unconventional and is far more irregular than the unrelenting passion driving my love of regolith.  My soils background is as much scientific as creative, as much practical as philosophical and as much fun as serious.  Soils allow me a window to contemplate the vast and endless bigger picture of landscape complexity and soil science lets me organise my knowledge around this complexity.

Kayaking Kosciuszko National Park         [Photo 169]

I was born in the southern Wyżyna Śląska region of Poland.  Inherit of an extensive French lineage and via England, my family migrated to Australia in 1981 where I entered latter primary school to begin learning English.  Here was an important lesson in life (and soils) - to attune to more than that we depend upon, which in my case was a language that I was lacking.  As a result, I developed greater observational acuity and perceptual contexts.  Where I wasn’t learning to communicate I would spend hours in play.

Where?  In the dirt of course!  Digging through layers, scrutinising plant roots and discovering soil critters was joy.  It was not long before I realised that my childhood well intent, produced less than desirable effects and I was responsible for vacating the lives of a few soil critters by altering their soil environment.  The language was to come of course, and no trace of my heritage exists in my daily tongue, but these experiences were precursor to accommodating a systemic mind for later approach to learning about soils – and the joy never left of course.

Our success as human beings, as mine as a soil scientist, largely depends on an ability to observe and interact with my surroundings and fellow beings.  Cultivating acuity to observe variability is the cornerstone of our conditioning culturally as well as scientifically.  We are in effect programmed well to receive and communicate differences and to create categories.  When I speak about this I speak about that part of my job that allows me to quantify differences and populate these observations on an objective scale - to apply a language about soils at a common scientific platform.  I’m also quite keen to attune to anyone receiving information about soils from me, and the better I get my message across, the stronger the shared soil learning experience.  The latter exposes another motive for why I got into soil science, a challenge of common dialogue.

On our common language:  no unified theory for natural scientific classification exists.  Tension has always teetered between a quantifiable approach to a qualitative system.  Classification is relative, in that it is a product of the human mind and it has been punctuated by changes as recently as in our Australian Classification System and since Linnaeus and Aristotle.  The latter by many archetypes.  Because of my country of birth I will indulge in an example:  chernozem, solod, solonetz, rhendzina used in modern European soil classification originated from archetypal names used by peasant folk over ages in Poland.  Generally speaking, we are now very much in the territory of two different languages and one exists in scientific journals for soil scientists and one in agricultural extension between farmers.  Closing this gap occupies my motivation for both hard soil science and engagement at farm scale.  We’ll always have different lingo but we can do better to intersect the two.

Me with my “Chapple” local designed hydraulic soil corer     [Photo 118]

I’ve been lucky to work with a diverse group of people since being inspired by passionate soils educators spanning university lecturers to farmers.  Recently I started my own soil business, primarily aimed at assisting fellow soil practitioners and industry in a technical capacity in research and investigations and with soil sampling.  I have previously worked in technical roles in State government on part of a state wide (NSW) natural resources monitoring, evaluation and reporting program, on the precursor project to the subsequent development of a soil carbon benchmark matrix for central west NSW, and hydrogeological landscapes projects throughout a number of NSW catchments and local government areas encompassing frameworks for managing salinity and water sources.  Recently I’ve worked with a local Catchment Management Authority on a labile carbon test  and on a federally funded Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry, Carbon Farming Futures Project sampling soils.  Day to day I provide technical assistance to fellow soil scientists and state government and initiate collaborative projects.  What I greatly enjoy about my job today (is still), the inquisitive pursuit of digging holes.

Besides being out in the paddock, I really enjoy the education and communication aspect of my job. I’m dedicated to the improvement of language about soils and approach to education and effective improvement of soil health and the communities that reside there.   How and why I became a soil scientist and my own approach to soil is tempered by the people that surround me in my continued learning and my epistemological approach.  I am only as good a practitioner as the integrity of my networks, the questions I pose, genuine interconnections I make and of course the fun I can have on the job!

Local country around Cowra, New South Wales, Australia

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

All Mixed Up: A seminar on how to measure mine soils

Want to know how to measure soils on mine sites? Interested in the process of research, especially when things don't go according to plan? Then you may be interested in my final PhD Public Seminar :)

I am just about to submit my PhD entitled "Assessing mine soils with enhanced small-scale variation for mine rehabilitation activities" and would love for any enthusiasts, scientists, land managers to come along to ANU.

I will also be writing a blog post on my PhD research in the coming months. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Australian Soil Society Webinar!!

New South Wales Branch 2012 Harald Jensen Lecture: 

"Particulates vs Partisans, Humus vs The Rotten, Charcoal vs The Cooked" 

Dr Mark Conyers Webinar 

Friday 28th September 2012, 7.15pm 

The inaugural Harald Jensen Lecture is on this Friday evening. You don't have to go to Sydney to listen to Mark! Instead this is an ideal opportunity to just sit in the comfort of your lounge room and participate via interactive webinar.

To subscribe, follow the link before midday on Friday.

The cost of the webinar is $20 per head. You won't have to pay when you click on the link above. Instead, please contact myself for further details.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Crowd Sourcing Soil Data and DIY Specs

I am pretty excited about the possibilities of Open Access in soil science, and this is a great example of why!

The DIY Lab Spec

The idea of using cameras and camera phones in spectral work has been around for awhile. The problem has been in the coarse-ness of the measurement; the cameras and calibration are too wide for any really accurate or precise measurements. But this has the potential to break that barrier! With the crowd-sourcing of data, calibration can become more and more refined. And camera lenses are getting more and more amazing, only helping to improve the precision and accuracy of the technique.

 Technology + crowd sourcing + open access = amazing possibilities!

The possibilities:
* Use from unis to developing countries to backyards!
* Farmers can test thier own soil
* Great educational tool!
* Massive data bank of open access soil data *
 An affordable tool that can then be used to collect data for other projects as well, reducing costs of on field experiments and data analysis. Yep! Crowd source soil data!

Wow! I can't wait for mine to arrive so I can start playing with it and adding to the data bank.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Why I heart soil: Jess

Why do I research soil? Why do I love it so much? Why is it so fascinating?

 @LClaessen inspired me to think about why I love soil so much. These are my top 10 reasons:

1. That life is soil. And soil is life.
2. It is biologically diverse. One teaspoon of soil has 1 billion bacteria living in it.
3. Soil is beautiful. I love the different horizons, colours, clays and layers.
4. It allows us to produce food.
5. It is mysterious; there is a lot we don't know about soil.
6. It cleans our water.
7. It is complex. There are many chemical, biological and physical interactions in soil.
8. Every soil is different and unique.
9. The feel of wet soil in my hands, and its rich smell of life, reminds me of being a kid.
10. Soil supports our daily lives by providing us with the resources we need to live.

Why do you heart soil?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

My Favourite Soil: Terra Rosa

This months MFS comes from Antonio Jordán at the University of Sevilla, Spain. This post was originally published at EGUSSSD and has be reposted with minor edits. You can get to know Antonio at Sunday Soil Scientist

Red soil at São Brás de Alportel (Portugal)

The term "terra rossa" comes from the Italian for "red soil" or "red earth". Although terra rossa exists in other places in the world, these soils are common in areas with Mediterranean-type climates: alternation of a rainy and cool-to warm-dry season.

The terra rossa soil is heavy and clay-rich (silty-clay to clayey) soil, strongly reddish, developed on limestone or dolomite. It is a colloquial way to refer to land included within the Rhodustalfs (but also other sub-orders included in Alfisols, Inceptisols, Mollisols and Ultisols of the Soil Taxonomy), Chromic Luvisols (but also other soil types inside Cambisols, Luvisols and Phaeozems of the WRB) or modal fersiallitic red soils (French classification).

Lorena, while sampling a red soil in São Brás de Alportel, Faro, Portugal

There are several theories about the formation of terra rossa. The first one, traditionally accepted, states that it derives from the insoluble residue of the underlying limestone. Following dissolution of calcium carbonate by rain, clay contained in limestone sediments with other insoluble substances or rock fragments, forming discontinuous residual layers variable in depth. Under oxidizing conditions iron oxides appear, which produces the characteristic red color. According to this theory, terra rossa is a polygenetic relict soil, formed during the Tertiary and subjected to hot and humid periods during the Quaternary.

Karstic landscape (Cerro del Hierro, Sevilla, Spain)

A more recent theory is based on the geochemical composition of the soil, and suggests that these soils would have formed about 12.000 to 25.000 years from wind transported sediments over long distances.

Prof. Nicolás Bellinfante (Univ. of Sevilla), talking about the genesis of red calcareous soils

However, although in this case soil material is considered to be allochthonous (eg, aeolian dust from the Sahara), formation of the Mediterranean terra rossa is closely related to the properties of the limestone substrate.

Despite their clayey, red soils are usually well drained, due to the strong development of its structure, which allows agricultural use.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Make your own ecosystem: mini-glass house style

Awhile ago, a friend sent me a link for a miniature terrarium. It was so small you could wear it as a pendant and necklace. I instantly fell in love! Having a tiny little ecosystem around my neck was far too exciting!

But... I am also super clumsy and decided that I couldn't make a tiny ecosystem. Instead, I started to make my own ecosystems in old chemistry glass wear and jars.

An ecosystem comprises of biotic and abiotic factors, and you need to put these together to make an ecosystem. Ecosystems have living microorganisms in the soil, plants and animals, all of which are biotic. It also needs mineral soil, water and chemicals, for the plants to grow, all of which are abiotic. They also need sunlight, so glass or clear plastic are containers are perfect so they can get enough light.

So to make your own ecosystem, there are some essential ingredients:
Soil - from the garden or store
Small Plant - make sure you get one that is smaller than your container!
Water sprayer
Moss or Decorations like gnomes, pebbles, etc.
Glass or plastic container. It needs to be at least 6cm tall.
Chopsticks and tissues/paper towel

* Clean your container and dry.
* Add about 1cm thick of charcoal at the bottom of the container.
* Cover the charcoal with 1cm sand
* Add soil over the top - at least 2 or 3cm, depending on the height of you container. More soil + happier plants! Don't fill it right up, as you want to put in your plant first and then add more soil.
* You can now gently place your plant on the soil, and then cover the roots with more soil. Don't squash down the roots, though.
* You can add moss or decorations using chopsticks if you have a narrow container.
* Clean the sides with chopsticks and tissue papers.
* Water your ecosystem with a water sprayer with fine spray.

You don't have to use sand and charcoal, but they will help the ecosystem live longer! Charcoal helps to regulate nutrients and contaminants, so that there aren't too many of these things going to your plant.

I love looking at my mini-ecosystems and seeing how they have changed. Have the plants grown? Can you see roots in the soil? Is there anything growing in the soil? Is it wet or dry? Are there any animals in my ecosystem? Bugs?

It is alot of fun to watch an ecosystem grow and change!

Friday, July 20, 2012

My Favourite Soil: Floodplain Soils

Being invited to join the soilduck blog is hugely exciting and I firstly have to thank Jess for the privilege! As way of an introduction to me and my interests I thought the best way would be to share My Favourite Soil.

My Favourite Soil is floodplain soil. Specifically the floodplain soils found in the upper catchments of south east Australia. These are soils that, while not covering much area compared to the typical red and yellow duplex clay soils of the region, can be highly productive and were prised pasture lands for early settlers. They are usually highly organic (owing to the slow decomposition of organic matter in the seasonally to permanently waterlogged conditions) and have a high clay percentage (owing to the low-energy deposition environment of the floodplains).  Importantly, these soils form in a very particular set of landforms known as swampy meadows and/or chain-of-ponds. It’s these unique landforms and the soils that result that make them my favourite soil.

Tasty black soil and the famed lush pasture growth

Swampy meadows and chain-of-ponds have mostly been severely degraded due to inappropriate grazing and vegetation management. The vegetation that originally prevented major erosion in these floodplains was lost and the subsequent channel erosion drained the swamps and/or ponds. This left incised stream channels too deep to allow overbank flooding and the loss of the shallow groundwater. This means that there is little or no connection between the stream/groundwater and the floodplain soil. The soils of these degraded floodplains can remain productive, but without the connection to both the shallow groundwater and the stream the highly organic and nutrient rich nature of the soils are compromised and degraded over time. 

Relatively minor channel erosion. The disconnection between groundwater and soil is only about half a metre.  Channel erosion or incision can cut down many metres if the floodplain sediments are deep.

But too much talk makes my head hurt and leaves me with a burning desire to dig holes and get soil everywhere. So what better way to investigate these soils than with a technical classification key! Note that I will be foregoing the formal definitions here (as sometimes floodplain soils are technically just *gasp* sediments!). Below is “Nathan’s Slightly Facetious Guide to Identifying a Floodplain Soil in South East Australian Upper Catchments.”

1. Are you in south east Australian upper catchments? They can look like this:
Time for a nap next to the chain of ponds methinks. Note the orange hue to the water indicating a strong iron presence (from all the saturated sediments in the floodplain)

Or this:
A bit cold for a nap today, but this pond is about 10 m by 20 m and is home to a family of terrapins.
2. Walk down into the valley (you may need waders for this as these small floodplains are sometimes under 6-18 inches of water) and dig a hole/soil pit. Does it look like this?

My left ankle is not broken or dislocated despite the photographic evidence suggesting so. Tasty soil soup retrieved whilst mapping the floodplain surface sediments/soil. Note the shallow groundwater presence in the soil pit/hole.

Or this: 

Borderline self-mulching soil, if it ever got a chance to dry out completely that is.
3.  Do a field texture test/make mud pies/wait around for the water-logged soil to dry out. Is the soil anything from clay loam to a heavy clay (i.e. you can mould little sheep out of it if you want).
4. You have found a south east Australian upper catchment floodplain soil.
5.  Enjoy!

Thus concludes a small introduction byway of My Favourite Soil and I look forward to sharing more posts on soilduck!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sunday Soil Scientist: John F

Meet John Freeland: Serious and fun lover of soil and environment, wetland soil expert, clean water guru

When I was seven years old, my family moved from Dearborn, a modern suburb of Detroit, Michigan and the home of Henry Ford, to a much smaller and older town in Northwest Ohio, called Defiance. Perhaps the most notable aspect of Defiance was that it was built at the (confluence of the Maumee and Auglaize rivers) and regional folklore had it that the meeting of these two rivers protected the town from tornadoes. Twisters were common in the flat corn country surrounding Defiance, but the town never suffered a direct hit.

Northwest Ohio, prior to European settlement was known as the Great Black Swamp, a vast, mosquito-infested deciduous forested wetland. Too wet, dense, and buggy, it was practically worthless from the white man's perspective, Native Americans who camped near the rivers used it for hunting after losing their homes in more desirable upland country. They hung on until Indian Removal Act of 1830 empowered the U.S. Government to force the natives out and relocate them in Kansas, west of the Mississippi River. As a young boy, I wasn't aware of these things, but if one kept a sharp look down at the soil of a freshly plowed farm field, or at the mud along the river bank, or dug a pit in the woods, with luck, there was a chance of finding arrow heads or spear points or even bones from a wild exotic past – the time of Hiawatha. Lying on your belly peering into a fresh hole in the ground, feeling dark coolness on your face, smelling the rich loam, you could travel to the past: feel it, see it, touch it, smell it.

Years later, as a graduate student in an earth science seminar, I recall a presentation by a fellow student who'd worked for an oil company in Houston, Texas. Standing at the front of the classroom, he rolled out a paper scroll about three meters long and a meter wide. On the paper were hundreds of roughly parallel pencil lines. It was a seismogram representing, by charting differences in the speed of induced sound waves underground, variability of rock density and thickness, which suggested the possibility of finding oil.

I remember a distinct sense of deflated spirit when I saw that scroll. The thought of sitting in an office all day scrutinizing such documents had all the appeal of a jail sentence.

What I liked about geology was the visual and tactile experience of getting close to the thing itself: digging, hammering, seeing patterns in the earth, climbing, working outdoors under the big sky, ice-cold beer at the end of the day, traveling. Soil is highly accessible and every soil scientist who gets out of the lab and into the field will tell you how important that is to her.

As an adult with grown-up responsibilities, soil science is not just about child's-play and aesthetic satisfaction. The good thing is, you can actually make a living doing it. Here in the United States, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly the Soil Conservation Service) employs thousands of soil scientists. One of their major achievements of recent years is the roll out of Web Soil Survey, an on-line GIS tooll I use regularly.

Wetland, Gogebic Country, Michigan, USA

Landmark federal environmental legislation passed over forty years ago created a need for environmental scientists. The Clean Water Act passed in 1972 recognized the importance of wetlands to maintaining water supply and quality. Jurisdictional wetlands are defined according to three diagnostic parameters: vegetation, hydrology, and soils. The National Technical Committee for Hydric Soils has developed technical definitions and a set of regional hydric soil indicators used for wetland determinations. Most of my work during fifteen years of consulting has been directly related to (and made possible by) Section 404 of the Clean Water Act and hydric soils.

I've worked on many projects over the years and enjoyed associations with professionals in the public and private sectors. One example of one of the more notable projects was a 600-acre combined mine reclamation/wetland mitigation effort located on thixotropic (viscose) iron tailings basins near Republic, Michigan. Do not leave a truck parked and running on a thixotropic soil! Tailings are not natural soils, but they can grow plants fairly well with initial application of fertilizer and soil amendments. The project site is now part of the Republic Wetland Preserve.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), passed in 1969 established Environmental Assessments and Impact Statements that analyze environmental and human impacts resulting from projects receiving federal funds. These studies include consideration of soils, geologic resources and wetlands. I worked on the Vector Pipeline Environmental Impact Statement shortly after finishing graduate school.

Proposed area for a natural gas pipeline in Carroll County, Ohio

I'm currently working on wetland and watercourse assessment and permitting for natural gas pipeline projects in eastern Ohio. The natural gas industry is booming here after advances in hydrofracturing and horizontal drilling opened up the Marcellus and Utica shales to production.

My advice to young soil scientists is to keep learning and stay connected to your peers through professional organizations. Don't figure on the “headhunters” coming to you with job offers. Make a point of getting out to make presentations to keep your speaking skills intact and communicate to the public the importance of soil and sustainability. Write letters to the editor of newspapers. Have a presence in the “public square.”

I enjoy staying engaged with my peers through various professional organizations and writing the blog Terra Central hosted by the American Geophysical Union. Stop by and say hello, if you like.

Good luck with it all!

This post originally appeared at EGUSSSD

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

New Soil: Blogs and People

Some pretty exciting things have been happening in the soil world over the last few weeks.

Nathan Weber has come on board at Soilduck as a co-editor and regular author. His background is in flood-plain soils, hydrology and restoration. Nathan will be writing about his favourite soil soon.

The European Geoscience Union has a new Soil Science Blog. They are looking for posts on new and latest research, soil scientist profiles and interesting photos/videos and stories of soil. You can submit your stories here.

Soilduck. has also started a new photo and video blog: See My Soil. The blog is a collection of interesting soil-stuff from around the world. You can Show Your Soil here.

Do you know of any new and exciting soil?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Gamifying Soil: The Dirt On Soil

I just stumbled across this great game used for soil science education:

The Dirt on Soil

Yes, I did play! The Soil Safari was great! You can choose different scales to look at all sorts of different things in the soil. And the objective is to find a special chemical!

Monday, June 25, 2012

My Favourite Soil: Arenosol aka Kalahari Desert Soil

This months MFS comes from Nina Swiegelaar. Nina is a winemaker turned soil scientist. She has a passion for Kalahari soils and sustainable solutions for agricultural industries. 

I think I have always been destined to have a job or the type of life where I can get my hands really dirty. I come from an agricultural background and as far back as I can remember, I have always felt a very strong pull towards our “land.” There is a very childlike feeling of happiness when I get to push my fingers into the soil and feel it go in under my nails. I suppose I am not your typical girl.

My favourite soil is the Kalahari desert soil. There is no real scientific basis for my choice of favourite soil, seeing as the Kalahari soils are not overly fertile and poor for plant growth, have low organic matter content and in some places tend to be toxically alkaline (pH > 7). Kalahari desert soils are aeolian soils, that are formed by wind, and have a beautiful red colour. The Kalahari desert soils are classified as Arenosols and they cover large areas of Africa and Southern Africa.

Map of the Kalahari region (CC image from Wikispaces Group-Ethnographies)

These soils contain no more that 35% rock fragments in the surface 100mm layer. In the figure below the soil profile and the very characteristic red colour can be observed.

Soil sampling
Sampling Arenosol, or Kalahari desert soil (CC by K.Caylor)

So why is this my favourite soil type? Maybe it is because some of the world’s best grapes are produced on some of these red soils? Or maybe it is just the magnetic red colour that mesmerize me, or maybe the Kalahari desert soil is my favourite soil because it is from the land I come from? Whatever the reason, this is my favourite soil type and as the saying of the Kalahari desert people go: “Once that red sand has gotten stuck under your finger nails, you will forever want to return to this soil.”

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Are we all (Soil) Science Punks?

When you hear someone or something is 'Punk', we tend to think of rebellious individualism, weird social identities, punk music, crazy hair and fashion, free thought and discontent. We have images of punk couture (see below), loud music, alternative lifestyles in a head. And perhaps the last thing anyone would think about, is how being a 'bit-of-a punk' may actually be essential for scientific success.

Iron Punks from Outer Space
Punks, from outer space (on Flickr by Stefan)

All scientists need to be creative, freely think and express their ideas. Scientists even need to be a little rebellious. These are all attributes that we identify with Punks. Part of a scientists job is to create and develop ideas outside current human knowledge. To do this they:

Apply individual free-thinking
Scientists spend a lot of time pondering on problems. They often do this alone, and may spend hours seemingly doing nothing when they are really working hard to solve a problem. The thinking is important for uh-huh! moments, when an idea or a solution comes to mind.

Collaborate with other free-thinkers for inspiration
Scientists need other scientists to talk too. After a long time thinking, we like to share ideas, bounce ideas off each other. Other free thinkers may have completely different ideas, and two ideas can come together like an explosion; a new concept, idea, brainwave. New science!

Rebellion against normal in pursuit of answers and being creative
Scientists like to push boundaries, be creative, and to rebel against the normality in pursuit of answers. Sometimes the right, known and accepted ways of doing things needs to be thrown out the window in search of answers. Many scientists have had breakthroughs by taking a different path to the normal or what was originally intended. They have creative ideas or play to try and find an answer. This may include: trying new or developing methods; thinking about concepts in a different way from its original intention; or using something in a way it was not originally purposed for etc.

Most scientists will possibly relate to one or more of these 'punk' tendencies as being essential in their research. Scientists, like punks, can be radical, different, and look for alternative ways to doing things. For scientists, 'the Punk' is about improving science, livelihoods and the field of research.

2009YIP/210 Punk Science
Punk science (On Flickr by Angelsk)

But what does being a science punk mean for soil science and research?
Well, the answers are limitless! Pushing the boundaries, having boundless imagination and creativity and sharing ideas with others can only mean solving more problems and creating new solutions in soil science. New soil science, means solving problems like: food security, carbon sequestration, human health and environmental, social and economic sustainability. Finding new answers to improve science and our lives.

For me, being a punk, has led me to all sorts of discoveries about Spolic Anthroposols and how to measure them. What other soil solutions have come from being a punk? Perhaps... working out if there is life in Martian soil? Carbon accounting in soils for a positive climate future? Or maybe every day things we forget about, like the science behind how we go about improving soils for vegetable gardening. And in the future, who knows what a punkish-soil-scientist will find!

Punk; not a punk-scientist (On Flickr by Dr Case)

Perhaps all scientists are really Punks... deep down.

Are you a science punk? What do you think makes you a punk? Do you think that the rules of how we approach science can sometimes stifle our ability to be a science punk? Do you know any science punks that have had soil science breakthroughs? Comments welcome below.

Thanks Sarah, for being my punk muse. ;)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What will I do, when I finish the PhD: Soil and more

I am (finally) submitting my PhD thesis shortly and people keep on asking me what I plan to do next.

To be honest, I am not sure. Who knows what will come next! But, I thought I would share some of soil-related things I'd love to do when I finish.

Right after I submit...
* Celebrate with close friends, colleagues and family
* Have a holiday

* Teach my awesome students at CIT
* Look for work with awesome people in soil or mining science
* Spend time in the Hackerspace doing some art-meets-science projects
* Blog my thesis and all sorts of things that are soil
* Spend some time doing soil education and workshops at the Hackerspace

Further on...
* Collaborate with others on an open access soil journal that bridges managers and scientists (e.g. Flamma)
* Collaborate with others on soil and environmental advocacy and educational work
* Work on open access and accessibility to soil research and methods (e.g. wikis)

Crossing fingers!

Backstory: Creative Uses of Mines

I've been a bit busy finishing off my PhD for imminent submission, so I thought I would repost something I wrote and was edited by and posted at The Conversation late last year. It has been republished as per their Creative Commons license. You can find lots more re: mining and environment, including soil, on their site. I really encourage you all to have a gander at their site. I hope you enjoy it.

From mine to wine: creative uses for old holes in the ground

By Jessica Drake, Australian National University

Is it possible to have an ice-skating rink in an old mine? Or perhaps a wine and cheese cellar in a mine shaft? Or even a swimming pool in a processing plant?

It isn’t just possible – it can be environmentally, socially and economically friendly too.

Restoring the environment

In Australia, mining companies must rehabilitate the land they use once mining is finished. Rehabilitation usually focuses on restoring the pre-mine environment. This may be a natural environment, agriculture, forest or whatever was there before the mine.

In Western Australia, Alcoa focuses on recreating the surrounding Jarrah forest after completing their bauxite mine operations.

In the Hunter Region, Xstrata is working on ways of restoring agricultural land on old coal mines and processing plants.

Sometimes it isn’t possible to restore the pre-mine environment. Sometimes there has just been too much change to the landscape. Changes might include altered topography (holes and hills), the addition or removal of above- and below-ground water, and changes to environmental chemistry.

In these cases, we need to consider other options for mine rehabilitation.

The Cricova wine cellar in Moldova was once a limestone mine. (hanspoldoja)

Building new ecosystems when old ones are too far gone

Ecosystem engineering is all about designing ecosystems suitable to changed sites. These ecosystems should be stable, self-sustainable, and resilient to fire, flood and drought.

The AMD&ART project, conducted in Pennsylvania between 1994 and 2005, included designing a landscape that could cope with changes to environmental chemistry.

In Ontario, industry waste is used to grow corn and canola crops for biofuels production.

Getting creative with old mines

The Post Mining Alliance is a UK-based, not-for-profit group undertaking international research into creative uses for old mine sites.

Underground salt mines in Poland have been used as wedding and dining venues. Moldova is home to a wine cellar in an old limestone mine, and in Italy there is a cheese store in an old copper mine.

An ice skating rink has been installed at the Zollverein Colliery. (pimgmx)

The Zollverein Colliery in Germany has both an ice-skating rink and swimming pool nestled in the old plant. Diving and indoor ski centres have been made in underground mines in both the UK and Germany.

Open cut mines can be rehabilitated to become amphitheatres, the vast open spaces providing amazing acoustics.

The Eden Project in the UK is an environmental education facility inside an old china clay mine. The project not only considers the environment, but also provides more jobs and income than the previous mine did. The project has also increased social inclusion through education and awareness campaigns.
The Post Mining Alliance has been able to demonstrate that many of these creative rehabilitation options consider environmental concerns, long-term community needs and engagement, and provide local and national income.

Creative options address more than the environment, but consider broader aspects of sustainability, community and economics.

It used to be a mine. Now it's a hotel. (Michael Hopkins)

The Australian approach

In Australia, we are also considering sustainable and creative options for mine rehabilitation.
Parts of the cult-film, Mad Max were filmed inside a converted mine.

Towns such as Kalgoorlie and Coober Pedy are famous for their mining history and have become popular on the tourist circuit.

The Woodlawn bioreactor at Tarago in New South Wales is situated in an old copper, zinc and lead mine. It provides alternative waste management, jobs and greener energy.

So, when recreating pre-mining environments is not possible, perhaps we should look to creative mine rehabilitation options.

If nothing else, there’s something pretty awesome about the idea of an underground hotel.

Creative uses of mines and other land restoration issues are being discussed at the ACT/NSW Land Restoration forum in Canberra today.

Jessica Drake researches mine site rehabilitation at the Australian National University. She receives research funding from the mining industry. For more information regarding her research, please see her ANU profile: http://fennerschool.anu.edu.au/people/pgstudents/drakej.php
The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Second Woe of the Wombat

Wombats are probably my favourite native Australian animal. They dig in soil to make their homes. They have cute noses and whiskers. And they are mysterious; hiding in their burrows, and sometimes difficult to find. They are the largest soil moving mammals in Australia, and are an important part of our ecosystem.

I definitely have a soft spot for the Wombat; especially as it is a creature of soil. 

Wombat, via Wikipedia

I was very sad to hear that the Southern Hairy-Nose Wombat are under threat due to lack of feed and weeds, with a decline of 70-80% in the Murraylands of South Australia. I was listening to Radio National's Bush Telegraph program about the plight of one of my favourite creatures in the South Australian region, likely linked to drought. 

The Wombat Awareness Organisation (WAO) is concerned about drought, lack of feed, and weeds causing wombat malnutrition, lack of condition, and ultimately the death of the wombat. They are worried that there are thousands of wombats affected in South Australia. Researchers have identified a range of problems related to the condition and death of wombats, including toxic plants (potato weed) causing liver damage, changes in land management, compromised immune responses and diseases. Researchers said, however, that there are many complexities to the problem and more research is required. 

Southern Hairy-Nose Wombat, via Wikipedia

The WAO has found that wombats health improves after eating straw. They are wanting to get Government approval to place straw as a feed source in locations where there are affected wombats. Researchers would like a strategic approach to helping the wombats, including a monitoring program to determine if it the straw is helping the wombats. 

I hope that WAO and researchers are able to find a way to improve the conditions for the wombats, whether it be through food placement, altered land management practices where possible (such as control of weeds and improved feed), or looking into more wombat care centres. 

If you want to know more, or get involved, you can contact WAO and their Drought Relief Project or listen to the Bush Telegraph program. I have also previously written about wombats and mange, which affects wombats in South Eastern Australia (NSW, SA and Victoria). 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

How much was that? Counting sustainability and fairness in costs at the supermarket

At the *insert name of a large supermarket chain here* checkout, as my on-special environmentally-friendly olive oil got scanned, the Peppy Checkout Girl serving me exclaimed: "That was half that price last week! You should have bought it then." I mentioned that I don't go to *large supermarket* very often, but needed to on this occasion. I asked her why it was cheaper. She said that "...there are always huge discounts just after a bulk purchase". She then spent some time trying to convince me to check out their specials online weekly. I said that I was pretty happy with the price anyway, and she looked dumbfounded and stopped chatting to me with so much enthusiasm.

This bothered me for a couple of reasons.

Olives from Jordan (via Wikipedia)

The first was concern that Peppy Girl wasn't thinking of where the product came from, the story behind it. She was just concerned with the cost to her. The product I bought has environmental credentials. It minimises inputs, minimises soil erosion, and maximises soil health. This is part of sustainable farming; looking after the land during food production, so that we can produce food in the long term. We have the option when shopping to buy these products, and know we are contributing to better environmental practices and food security. Not all products are environmentally friendly; many products may even be having a detrimental impact on the environment at the cost of future generations ability to eat.

And it wasn't just about how the food was produced. Peppy Girl was thinking about her pocket, and not about who is actually paying for the food. When we pay low prices at the supermarkets, it is great for us; super cheap groceries. But, is that the real cost of the food? There is a tradition that at low prices to consumers, farmers may not be getting a fair deal (UKFG, 2005). With a fair deal being a price that covers production of the food and allows them a comfortable life. However, there is mixed information available regarding the exact nature of deals between producers and retailers (ABARE, 2005), and it is very difficult to tell if this product or other products are a fair price.

February 26th: Fairtrade fortnight!
Fairtrade products (via Richard Thomas aka Flickrich on Flickr)

The second reason was whether the low cost of the product is reflective of its sustainable and environmentally-friendly credentials. The week before I bought the olive oil, it was about $3.00. When I bought the oil, it was $6.00, and still on special. This seems very very cheap. Why? An environmentally sustainable products cost more to produce. This is because they often use less land with more land in conservation, produce less, it is more labour intensive, and they use specialist practices, all of which cost more. As a 'speciality product', the trade off for the high cost of production is by getting a premium price, or higher price compared to non-sustainable products. How much did the retailer pay for the oil? Was it enough to cover the cost of the oils production, environmental sustainability and for the livelihood of the farmer?

I don't like to be negative, and I hope that making food production processes more transparent and accessible to consumers will help people understand where their food comes from and what choices they can make. A national sustainable farming scheme, like Target 100, aims to promote sustainable farming practices, bring farmers together and educate consumers about environmental practices. You can also download ethical guides for iPhone, such as The Good Shopping Guide, Shop Ethical and Sustainable Seafood Guide by NGOs and researchers, which help to make more informed decisions whilst shopping. Other national labelling schemes have been previously discussed as a way of helping people to make more informed choices about what they are buying, and their environmental and social credentials.

What else can we all do when we shop?
* Go to your local farmers markets and stores (my favourite producer owned stores in Canberra are Choku Baijo and Lost River Butcher), and buy direct from producers
* Look for environmental credentials on the product: organic, biodynamic, sustainable, environmental, Landcare, Fairtrade etc.
* Download ethical guides to take and research whilst shopping

And ask yourself: why is this so cheap? Are the farmers getting a good deal? Does the product have environmental credentials?

For me, knowing where that product came from, the environmental story behind it and that the farmers got a fair price is the most important choice for me when shopping. I desperately wanted to explain to the Peppy Girl why cheapest isn't always best for the environment, for the producer and even for Peppy Girl's future.

There are many more ethical, environmental, and fair produce arguments in this debate, and you can check out more of them here:
Target 100
Ethical Consumer Guide
Organic Certification - Australia
Australian Academy of Science: Sustainable links
Fairtrade Certification and Aust/NZ
A blog post I wrote about sustainable eating.
There are also many books available on this topic, with interesting debate.

What are your thoughts on sustainable food and supermarkets? Prices? Labelling? Are you worried that paying low prices could result in non-sustainable practices? Are you a producer that is concerned or thinks you are getting a fair price? Perhaps you are a retailer who is experienced in Fairtrade? Please share your comments and ideas below.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sunday Soil Scientist: Andy

Meet Andy Scott: Runner, Forest lover and Researcher in soil science and management

I grew up on a sandy ridge about 200 m above the White River in southern Indiana, in the midwestern U.S. My backyard was a mixed hardwood forest that included many sandstone outcrops, mini-caves, and a great little pond. None of my friends lived near me, so I spent all my time exploring those woods or playing in the 4x5x1.5 m subterranean clubhouse I dug out of the side of a hill in a Alvin-Bloomfield complex.

I was always fascinated by the grubs, plant bulbs, roots, centipedes, and the interesting colors I found while digging. I also created probably 1 km of trails through the woods with an axe and a garden rake before I turned 14. During that same time, a major battle between the nearby Hoosier National Forest and some environmental groups raged over harvesting, and while I didn’t know what the issues were at the time, this debate over harvesting left a real impression on me.

Andy undertaking sampling

I went to college to study Forestry, not expecting to actually stay in that major, but it seemed okay to start with until I found something I really liked. Then, after my freshman year, I got a summer job working for two Ph.D. students helping with their forest soils research projects. I got to plant trees, dig soil pits, measure forests, take soil samples, root samples, foliage samples, and sort leaves. I also got to work in the laboratory preparing samples for analysis. I kept this job for the next three years of my undergraduate, and ended up doing my own research project to supplement the graduate student projects. During my sophomore year, I took Purdue University’s famed AGRY 255 (Introductory Soil Science), and loved it so much I almost switched majors. But instead I realized then that I could combine my love of forests with my love of soils and study forest soils. I maintained my Forest Management major, but took a soils course for every possible elective. I did the same thing for both my graduate degrees; I majored in Forestry but took as many if not more soils courses.

Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda L.) plantation. Photo by Andy Scott

My primary research interest has always generally revolved around how disturbance (usually anthropogenic) affects various soil properties and processes in forests, and how forests respond to those changes. Virtually all my studies have been oriented toward forest managers or landowners. I get the most satisfaction from my work when I know that someone, somewhere, might be able to protect soil quality while still managing their forest for a host of goods and services (can be timber, but game animals, carbon sequestration, water quality, biodiversity, and other outputs are finally being recognized for their value). Currently, I’m spending most of my time assessing the potential and actual impact of the “new” woody biomass industry on forest soil quality and productivity.

My favorite soil

I don’t know that I have a favorite soil. I don’t get enough time in soil pits to really develop a particular favorite. I’m fascinated by all sorts of soils, even relatively boring but quite productive brown Ultisols (like the Beauregard series that support this productive loblolly pine (Pinus taeda L.) plantation).

Beauregard Series. Photo by Andy Scott

Forest soil science is my passion. Why?

Soils are unbelievably complicated ecosystems, arguably more complicated than the ecosystems existing above them. Soils covered by forest ecosystems generally are less productive or have some constraint to development or agriculture, meaning they often are at high risk of decreases in quality if managed improperly. Conversely, they are also quite resilient if managed well. High-quality forest soils provide many services to society and have value all their own as well, but degraded soils are very costly to restore or costly due to lost ecosystem services. By continuing to study how forest management affects soils and how soils affect forest management, I hope to ensure that all landowners can make good decisions and sustain soil quality.

Andy now works as a Research Soil Scientist with the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service’s Southern Research Station.