The Weekly Carboholic: Soil key to global heating too


Dirt. It’s all around you. You wash it off your car. You run and hike on it. You buy it to plant your new roses in. And yet, according to an amazing Boston Herald story titled The Future of Dirt, soil scientists are only now beginning to understand how it really works. And given that the global population is expected to rise by about 50% in the next 50 years, we’re going to need to figure out ways to keep what soil we have from degrading and even improve the fertility of our dirt if possible.

By 2050, according to Rattan Lal, a professor of soil science at Ohio State University, “All the necessities of food, feed, fiber, and fuel are going to be met by less than one-tenth of an acre per person, on average. And we already have seriously degraded a lot of the available land. So unless you can restore some of it you will just run out.”

terrapreta.jpgThis warning is not hyperbole. There is evidence that ancient civilizations collapsed because the overused their dirt and either stripped all the nutrients out of it or irrigated it so often that it eventually turned alkaline or salty and incapable of growing much of anything. The article mentions David Montgomery, a University of Washington geologist who has written a book that traces the fall of classical Greece, imperial Rome, various Pacific Island cultures, and the Mayans to poor soil. But some of the richest soil on the planet, the terra preta of South America and parts of Africa, was created by indigenous people mixing organic matter (food wastes and manure) and biochar (a particular form of charcoal) into the unenriched native soils.

Biochar, [researchers] have found, enhances the retention of water and nutrients, decreases the need for fertilizer, encourages microbial growth, and allows more air to reach crop roots. It also breaks down at a far slower rate than traditional fertilizers and soil additives. Depending on how the charcoal is made and applied, estimates of its life span range from decades to millennia.

According to the Boston Herald article, other scientists are working on creating fully synthetic soils from industrial wastes, and while these soils apparently work, they’re very expensive and, at this point anyway, are hardly optimal. I imagine that much of the cost is in purging the industrial wastes (such as byproducts from drug manufacturing, fly ash from power plants, and aluminum smelting byproducts) of their toxic contaminants like mercury, cadmium, lead, arsenic, etc.

The article also discusses new crop rotations that use one crop to replace the nutrients that the prior crop removed and low or no-till cultivation methods being developed or already in use that reduce soil erosion and help keep sequestered carbon dioxide in the soil instead of releasing it into the air. It can take 10,000 years to build 6 inches of topsoil, averaging about 0.015 mm of topsoil per year. That means it will take about 65 years to replace 1 mm of topsoil, and that’s the amount that’s estimated to be lost per year, as a global average.

How does this relate to global heating? As the planet heats up, droughts and floods are expected to become more common. Both degrade soils, either directly via solar heating or indirectly via wind and water erosion. Agriculture releases nitrogen and carbon compounds into the atmosphere unless done very carefully. Biochar has the potential to both improve soil fertility and sequester carbon in the earth for decades to millenia. And since history has many examples of civilizations that faded as their soils collapsed, keeping our global soil alive and well will be key to keeping our civilization healthy, especially as we decarbonize our carbon-based society.


Sticking with the theme of dirt, I stumbled across an interesting article in South Africa’s Independent Online (IOL) about the junction between genetically engineered crops and organic growing techniques.

While genetic engineering can offer new varieties, such as pest-resistant corn, organic farming can help to achieve higher yields without damaging the environment, as it does not use synthetic pesticides or fertilisers, [University of California at Davis professor Pamela Ronald] said via telephone.

“Genetic engineering is a way to make seeds … Farmers rely on seeds for good yields, but seeds cannot solve everything,” she said.

“You need some way to add fertiliser and control the pests. That’s where organic farming has a lot to contribute.”

What I find the most interesting is that we have a scientist who is using genetic engineering to develop rice strains that are either disease or flood resistant, and yet she’s also calling for organic cultivation of her own products, not industrial cultivation. After all, organic cultivation requires less fertilizer, reduces topsoil erosion, and is generally lower impact on the local climate. And, given the expected speed of global heating, we cannot afford to wait several human generations (and scores or hundreds of generations of our various staple crops) while we use conventional selective breeding to produce flood, disease, drought, insect, and salt tolerance or resistance in our food crops. The population of the planet is rising too fast.

So unless you’re willing to support activities that reduce human population directly – war, disease, famine, et al – you’ll have to feed the population of the planet somehow. And it’s reasonably likely that genetically engineered crops of one kind of another will be a big piece of that particular puzzle.


Three weeks ago, the Weekly Carboholic introduced readers to Project Vulcan, a project with the goal of mapping the release of carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) in the U.S. with greater temporal and spatial resolution than had ever been attempted previously. This week we have an update, specifically that Vulcan has released data for 2002 that gives CO2 emissions for specific sectors (transportation, utilities, agriculture, etc.) on a county-by-county basis. And from this data is available the 20 top counties with the highest total CO2 emissions in the country.

Those counties are, in order:

  1. Harris, Texas
  2. Los Angeles, California
  3. Cook, Illinois
  4. Cuyahoga, Ohio
  5. Wayne, Michigan
  6. San Juan, New Mexico
  7. Jefferson, Alabama
  8. Wilcox, Alaska
  9. East Baton Rouge, Louisiana
  10. Titus, Texas
  11. Carbon, Pennsylvania
  12. Porter, Indiana
  13. Jefferson, Ohio
  14. Indiana, Pennsylvania
  15. Middlesex, Massachusetts
  16. Bexar, Texas
  17. Hillsborough, Florida
  18. Suffolk, New York
  19. Clark, Nevada
  20. Duval, Florida

These 20 counties, of a total of 3141 counties nationwide, represent 14 different states and about 11.4% of the entire CO2 emissions of the United States. In other words, 0.6% of the counties in the U.S. account for 11.4% of all CO2 emissions. That’s huge, and it suggests that we need to pour a lot of money into those counties to get their CO2 emissions down. After all, it’s a well known precept of engineering that, when addressing multiple problems of varying magnitudes, you tackle the problems that give you the biggest benefit first. Duh.

But there’s other ways to look at this data. The top 50 counties (from Vulcan’s Excel-formatted data directly), representing 24 states, account for 21.9% of all emissions. And it takes 183 counties representing 46 states to exceed 50% of the Unites States’ total CO2 emissions. In other words, even if you dropped the top 183 counties CO2 emissions to 0 by throwing massive amounts of investment at them, that’s still every state by Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, and South Dakota. If we use EIA government data on state emissions in 2002 instead of Project Vulcan’s data, we find that the top 11 states account for 52.66% of all CO2 emissions. Those states are, in order from highest emitters to lowest: Texas, California, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, New York, Louisiana, Michigan, and Georgia.

In other words, 20 counties may be only 0.6% of all U.S. counties, but it’s still 28% of all states. And 183 counties may only 5.8% of all U.S. counties, but it’s 92% of all states. This illustrates the difficulty of the problem, because targeting only the highest magnitude emitters will still require that we pour investment and make changes civilizational changes pretty much nationwide.

Well, at least 92% of nationwide….


According to Reuters, NOAA has reported that CO2 and methane concentrations in the global atmosphere were higher in 2007 than they’ve ever been, at 386 ppm.

The greenhouse gas index, based on data from 60 sites around the world, showed that that last year’s carbon dioxide increase added 2.4 molecules to every million molecules of air, a measurement known as parts per million, or ppm.

Unfortunately, Reuters apparently chose to engage in a bit of unnecessary hyperbole with this line:

The rise continued in 2008, according to a chart of global carbon dioxide emissions online here, which showed world emissions of this gas heading off the chart at over 386 ppm.

While it’s certainly true that the graph shows the 2007 data at the upper maximum of the graph, it’s hardly “off the chart” in the sense of historical increases year-to-year. 2007’s increase of 2.42 ppm was the 4th highest increase since NOAA started tracking global CO2 concentrations, after 1998, 1987, and 2005. One correlation is that 1997-1998, 1986-1987, 2004-2005, and 2006-2007 were all El Nino years, with the El Nino of 1998 being one of the most powerful El Ninos on record, if not the most powerful.

If you choose to look at the Mauna Loa Observatory data, which goes back to 1959 instead just 1980 for the NOAA data, 2007 is the 7th highest behind 1998, 2002, 2005, 2003, 1987, and the tie between 1983 and 1988. Again, all of these years are El Nino years or within 1 year after an El Nino (1988, specifically).

So while CO2 concentrations continue to rise, the 2.42 ppm increase itself isn’t necessarily the biggest problem. The problem is that there has yet to be a decrease in the rate of increase of CO2 concentrations. If you look at the Mauna Loa Observatory data, the black line shows a localized slowing in the rate of increased concentrations (possibly a result of the La Nina event presently ongoing in the Pacific) around Hawaii – when the global trend starts to show such a flattening of the curve, THAT will be good news.

14 replies »

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  2. Nice one. Thanks for the shout out to dirt. Soil chemistry is not fully understood, beyond knowing that a healthy soil ecosystem is essential to healthy plant growth. The methods of industrial agriculture treat soil as not much more than a media to hold the plant upright and absorb water…in other words, the most inefficient form of hydroponic growing. Plants grown in stripped soil are spoon fed fertilizer, but most fertilizer is only about providing N-P-K. The plants, however, need the micro-nutrients and trace elements too. Think of it this way: our fast food diet was raised on a fast food diet.

    Organic growing is, at its root, more about soil building than plant growing. Good organic is difficult to achieve because it takes an average of four years to build the soil. And as you pointed out, our current soil issues will only be excerbated by climate changes (and excerbate the climate changes in a feedback loop).

    GMO’s are not inherently bad (though they may be inherently dangerous). The issue is to what end they are developed. When recently confronted with studies by two major, agricultural universities that showed Bt Soya crops to produce yields of 6-11% below traditional Soya, DP&L (Monsanto) countered that they hadn’t been developing the crops for higher yields. Funny, their advertising always claims higher yields. But it’s true. GMO research has mostly been either to make the plant itself a pesticide or increase tolerance to pesticides/herbicides/fungicides. In other words, allow the farmer to spend more money on the products sold by the companies that pay for the GMO research. Why would Monsanto want to produce higher yielding seeds? It goes against their economic interest. Higher yielding seeds mean that the farmer A. might not need so much seed (and tertiary products) and B. might deflate prices all along the vertically integrated industrial food chain.

    (Note: The highest yields for the GMO Soya came from adding Manganese. And while we fight fungi tooth and nail, they are actually integral to soil health. Unfortunately, any genetic engineering to increase yields won’t be available overnight; futhermore, many of the seed strains that would be used are now patented by Monsanto.)

    Feed yourself and the rest will follow.

  3. I second that, nice work on the soil info. Terra preta is facinating. And thanks Lex for your contribution. I’m surprised you didn’t mention the world-wide shortage of fertilizer, which exasperates the food shortage that is hitting the poor the hardest.

    I thought you’d find this interesting Brian: The Telegraph is reporting that “Global warming will stop until at least 2015 because of natural variations in the climate.” I’d be interested in your take on that.

  4. The NYTimes has an article about the same thing, and I’ll go into more detail no later than next week’s Carboholic (I’m trying to crunch global temp data tonight and tomorrow night for a post on the same), but here’s my quick take.

    The reports are based on the first ever, VERY preliminary short-term predictive climate model. As such, there’s a lot of unknowns about it. But an NCAR scientist interviewed for the NYTimes article pointed out something that’s vitally important – a short term flat (or even very gradually declining) trend over the next few years doesn’t negate a long term trend towards increased heating. If the cooling trend becomes long-term, THAT’s a big deal, but it’ll takes decades to confirm such a long-term trend, just as it’s taken decades to confirm a long term heating trend.

    One other thing to keep in mind – if ocean currents are going to keep the planet’s atmosphere cooler for the next few years, that means that the oceans will be absorbing the extra heat. Similarly, that will probably reduce the rate of increase in carbon dioxide emissions (cold water can hold more dissolved gases than hot water). And the likely results of more CO2 and more heat in the water will be faster sea level rise and a rapid increase in ocean acidity.

    How’s that for tradeoffs?

  5. Thanks Brian. (Are you sure you shouldn’t be consulting for NCDC?) I had a feeling that the predicted plateau would, at best, temporarily dam the flood of heating that will follow in the following decades. But I didn’t think that it might exasperate ice cap melting now.

    I am just as concerned about how this leveling might dissuade the public from dealing with warming. I can just see the conservative pundants in the next couple of years saying that climate change was “just a fad”.

  6. The denial crowd is already saying that exact thing. Which is why I’ll be crunching that data and putting up a post with the results of said data crunching.

  7. On the plane back to the UK I had a chat with someone about of all things climate change. Just a fellow traveller he…not a scientist.

    He was a little confused. His point was that Global Heating as a phrase seems to be dropping off and is now being replaced with the phrase Climate Change. Climate Change he said was nothing new and that the earth has been cooling and heating and changing all by itself for ages. He thinks that a sleight of hand may be showing itself in the cards dealt at the public table.

    I pointed him in the direction of S & R.

    Excellent information, as ever.

  8. The official terms are “global warming” and “climate change”. I have chosen to use “global heating” because the earth isn’t warming up, it’s heating up. Not only can you add heat to a system without causing temperature changes (ice turns to water with the addition of a lot of heat, but with no temperature change at all, for example), but I feel that the seriousness of this issue requires a more forceful term than “warming.”

    Besides, the difference between 40C and 45C (104F and 113F) is more than merely “warmer” – it’s hotter.

  9. My comment was too long to include the petroleum crutch of industrial agriculture. I don’t know if it’s true, but i’ve read (in a reputable source) that to produce five pounds of nitrogen for fertilizer requires the equivalent energy of burning 2,200 lbs of coal. Now, there are different kinds of nitrogen fertilizer. Furthermore the one pound box of Miracle Grow that you buy is nowhere near one pound of nitrogen. Fertilizer is labeled with three numbers N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium); each number corresponds to the percentage of the nutrient. So a fert labeled 24-8-16 is really only 48% fertilizer.

    If you now feel bad about buying fertilizer, you can always pee in a jar and save it for a while. The ammonia converts to nitrogen. Recent tests with aged urine show amazing results. If that’s a little too extreme for you, worm castings are a great source of nitrogen for garden soil.

    I’m all for organic gardening. Most of what i grow is grown organically. But like “global heating” or “climate change” wording can create problems…especially when the government is in charge of defining the words. For example. If you buy imported, organic asparagus from Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, it was shipped through Miami. Every box of asparagus going through Miami is fumigated with a fungicide. Is it still organic?

    And organic ties a growers hands. I spend most of my summer advising people how to care for their yards,/grow things. I always recommend the most organic method first (eg. Neem oil for a bug problem). But there are times when those solutions don’t cut it. Do you adhere to the principle of “organic” and watch your garden disappear, or do you do what you have to do to keep it?

    I think that our focus needs to be on small, diversified, and local growing…rather than organic. Those types of growers will almost always choose more organic methods, because they are almost always cheaper. The small holder will also be able to keep closer tabs on insect/disease problems. The massive amount of pesticides used (it is improving because it’s too expensive) on huge farms is not because there are so many pests, but because it’s hard to catch an outbreak early on thousands of acres. So the farmers wage preventative war.

    Oops, sorry for the tome. Maybe we should start calling global heating “human suicide”; that’s what it really is, after all. There wouldn’t be any fudging that phrase.

  10. I hope you will come to share my passion in getting the word out on the wonderful solutions provided by TP soils.
    I’m sort of the TP list cub reporter, most all my list postings, under shengar@aol.com, are news items, collaborative work, lobbying efforts with government, writers and journals.

    Bellow are my collected stories and links that I promiscuously post to anyone who has an iron in this fire.

    Thanks for your interest


    the current news and links on Terra Preta (TP) soils and closed-loop pyrolysis of Biomass, this integrated virtuous cycle could sequester 100s of Billions of tons of carbon to the soils.

    This technology represents the most comprehensive, low cost, and productive approach to long term stewardship and sustainability.Terra Preta Soils a process for Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration, 1/3 Lower CH4 & N2O soil emissions, and 3X Fertility Too.

    UN Climate Change Conference: Biochar present at the Bali Conference


    SCIAM Article May 15 07;


    After many years of reviewing solutions to anthropogenic global warming (AGW) I believe this technology can manage Carbon for the greatest collective benefit at the lowest economic price, on vast scales. It just needs to be seen by ethical globally minded companies.

    Could you please consider looking for a champion for this orphaned Terra Preta Carbon Soil Technology.

    The main hurtle now is to change the current perspective held by the IPCC that the soil carbon cycle is a wash, to one in which soil can be used as a massive and ubiquitous Carbon sink via Charcoal. Below are the first concrete steps in that direction;

    S.1884 – The Salazar Harvesting Energy Act of 2007

    A Summary of Biochar Provisions in S.1884:

    Carbon-Negative Biomass Energy and Soil Quality Initiative

    for the 2007 Farm Bill

    Tackling Climate Change in the U.S.
    Potential Carbon Emissions Reductions from Biomass by 2030by Ralph P. Overend, Ph.D. and Anelia Milbrandt
    National Renewable Energy Laboratory

    Click to access 07_biomass.pdf

    The organization 25×25 released it’s (first-ever, 55-page )”Action Plan” ; see; link
    On page 29 , as one of four foci for recommended RD&D, the plan lists: “The development of biochar, animal agriculture residues and other non-fossil fuel based fertilizers, toward the end of integrating energy production with enhanced soil quality and carbon sequestration.”
    and on p 32, recommended as part of an expanded database aspect of infrastructure: “Information on the application of carbon as fertilizer and existing carbon credit trading systems.”

    I feel 25×25 is now the premier US advocacy organization for all forms of renewable energy, but way out in front on biomass topics.

    There are 24 billion tons of carbon controlled by man in his agriculture and waste stream, all that farm & cellulose waste which is now dumped to rot or digested or combusted and ultimately returned to the atmosphere as GHG should be returned to the Soil.

    Even with all the big corporations coming to the GHG negotiation table, like Exxon, Alcoa, .etc, we still need to keep watch as they try to influence how carbon management is legislated in the USA. Carbon must have a fair price, that fair price and the changes in the view of how the soil carbon cycle now can be used as a massive sink verses it now being viewed as a wash, will be of particular value to farmers and a global cool breath of fresh air for us all.

    If you have any other questions please feel free to call me or visit the TP web site I’ve been drafted to co-administer. http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/?q=node

    It has been immensely gratifying to see all the major players join the mail list , Cornell folks, T. Beer of Kings Ford Charcoal (Clorox), Novozyne the M-Roots guys(fungus), chemical engineers, Dr. Danny Day of EPRIDA , Dr. Antal of U. of H., Virginia Tech folks and probably many others who’s back round I don’t know have joined.

    Also Here is the Latest BIG Terra Preta Soil news;

    The Honolulu Advertiser: “The nation’s leading manufacturer of charcoal has licensed a University of Hawai’i process for turning green waste into barbecue briquets.”

    See: http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/antalkingsford

    ConocoPhillips Establishes $22.5 Million Pyrolysis Program at Iowa State

    Glomalin, the recently discovered soil protien, may be the secret to to TP soils productivity;


    Mycorrhizae Inoculent;


    The International Biochar Initiative (IBI) conference held at Terrigal, NSW, Australia in 2007. The papers from this conference are posted at their home page; http://www.biochar-international.org/home.html

    Here is my current Terra Preta posting which condenses the most important stories and links;

    Terra Preta Soils Technology To Master the Carbon Cycle

    Man has been controlling the carbon cycle , and there for the weather, since the invention of agriculture, all be it was as unintentional, as our current airliner contrails are in affecting global dimming. This unintentional warm stability in climate has over 10,000 years, allowed us to develop to the point that now we know what we did,………… and that now……… we are over doing it.

    The prehistoric and historic records gives a logical thrust for soil carbon sequestration.
    I wonder what the soil biome carbon concentration was REALLY like before the cutting and burning of the world’s forest, my guess is that now we see a severely diminished community, and that only very recent Ag practices like no-till and reforestation have started to help rebuild it. It makes implementing Terra Preta soil technology like an act of penitence, a returning of the misplaced carbon to where it belongs.

    On the Scale of CO2 remediation:

    It is my understanding that atmospheric CO2 stands at 379 PPM, to stabilize the climate we need to reduce it to 350 PPM by the removal of 230 Billion tons of carbon.

    The best estimates I’ve found are that the total loss of forest and soil carbon (combined
    pre-industrial and industrial) has been about 200-240 billion tons. Of
    that, the soils are estimated to account for about 1/3, and the vegetation
    the other 2/3.

    Since man controls 24 billion tons in his agriculture then it seems we have plenty to work with in sequestering our fossil fuel CO2 emissions as stable charcoal in the soil.

    As Dr. Lehmann at Cornell points out, “Closed-Loop Pyrolysis systems such as Dr. Danny Day’s are the only way to make a fuel that is actually carbon negative”. and that ” a strategy combining biochar with biofuels could ultimately offset 9.5 billion tons of carbon per year-an amount equal to the total current fossil fuel emissions! ”

    Terra Preta Soils Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration, 1/3 Lower CH4 & N2O soil emissions, and 3X FertilityToo

    All the Biochar Companies and equipment manufactures I’ve found:

    Carbon Diversion

    Eprida: Sustainable Solutions for Global Concerns

    BEST Pyrolysis, Inc. | Slow Pyrolysis – Biomass – Clean Energy – Renewable Ene

    Dynamotive Energy Systems | The Evolution of Energy

    Ensyn – Environmentally Friendly Energy and Chemicals

    Agri-Therm, developing bio oils from agricultural waste

    Advanced BioRefinery Inc.

    Technology Review: Turning Slash into Cash

    3R Environmental Technologies Ltd. (Edward Someus)
    WEB: http://www.terrenum.net/

    The company has Swedish origin and developing/designing medium and large scale carbonization units. The company is the licensor and technology provider to NviroClean Tech Ltd British American organization WEB: http://www.nvirocleantech.com and VERTUS Ltd.
    Genesis Industries, licensee of Eprida technology, provides carbon-negative EPRIDA energy machines at the same cost as going direct to Eprida. Our technical support staff also provide information to obtain the best use of biochar produced by the machine. Recent research has shown that EPRIDA charcoal (biochar) increases plant productivity as it sequesters carbon in soil, thus reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide.


    If pre-Columbian Kayopo Indians could produce these soils up to 6 feet deep over 15% of the Amazon basin using “Slash & CHAR” verses “Slash & Burn”, it seems that our energy and agricultural industries could also product them at scale.

    Harnessing the work of this vast number of microbes and fungi changes the whole equation of energy return over energy input (EROEI) for food and Bio fuels. I see this as the only sustainable agricultural strategy if we no longer have cheap fossil fuels for fertilizer.

    We need this super community of wee beasties to work in concert with us by populating them into their proper Soil horizon Carbon Condos.

    Erich J. Knight
    Shenandoah Gardens
    1047 Dave Berry Rd.
    McGaheysville, VA. 22840
    (540) 289-9750

  11. I am still jet lagged, my fault he did use Global Warming…my fingers put in Global Heating.

    *zzzz* …still tired!

  12. Wow, Erich! Thanks for all the links. I look forward to going through them carefully. I’m fascinated by TP, and you may well get an email from me.

    As an aside, the new incarnation of ProMix (BX) potting soil is inoculated. I haven’t tested it against an uninoculated potting soil, but i have been impressed with what i’ve seen so far. And as someone who’s exposed to massive quantities of the stuff (and its dust), i’m thrilled that the potting soil we use no longer carries health warnings due to fungicides.

    Thanks again.