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!