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:
The Conversation

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