Soil Organic Carbon is the new Hollywood starlet

on January 4, 2017

Soil seems to be all the rage in the eco-world lately.  At least, a fair amount of the work AES scientists have done is getting some welcome attention.

This year, AES was part of a team of soil carbon researchers who were invited to present their findings at the White House.

In the past two years, our team’s work has been featured in two documentaries directed by Peter Byck and produced by Carbon Nation in collaboration with Arizona State University: Soil Carbon Cowboys and The Luckiest Places on Earth.  And AES’ Steve Apfelbaum made a cameo appearance in Unbroken Ground, produced by Patagonia Provisions.

Even the United Nations made 2015 the Year of the Soil.

And Apfelbaum wrote a children’s book about Springtail, a soil microbe whose dream of seeing the world above comes true (in production).  What’s next, a Bubble Guppy cartoon version of the life down under our feet?

Soil, it seems, can be a game-changer.


AES’ Dr. Tom Hunt reviews soil sample.

Shell Game-Changer, Shell Oil’s venture capital fund for unusual ideas, actually provided the grant funding for the Alberta AMP Grazing Pilot Study documented in The Luckiest Places on Earth.  In the film, Apfelbaum, and AES ecologists Ry Thompson and Dr. Tom Hunt, demonstrate the soil sampling and infiltration studies that are central to the soil organic carbon research.

The goal of the project is to measure and compare the accumulation of soil carbon, and estimated accrual rates, on ranches in Alberta managed by Adaptive Multi-Paddock Grazing (AMP) and ranches managed by continuous grazing, both heavy and light.

In the film, the usually understated Dr. Hunt hands a rancher a handful of crumbly black soil, and asks, “John, feel that…that, that’s just pleasurable, right? It’s silky.”   Later in the film, while measuring water infiltration rates, and comparing results from AMP grazing and continuous grazing, Apfelbaum summarized the AMP results, “Sounds like the land has a drinking problem.”

Ry Thompson, admiring the efficiency and ease of the hydraulic soil probe technology which produces a 1-meter, 2-inch core in seconds, rather than a 20-minute manual struggle, summarized the Giddings unit as “not bad, huh?”

Thompson and the crew took 415 soil samples from 12 ranches for lab testing and analysis at the University of Missouri.   So the Giddings came in handy.

The pilot project in Canada was presented to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in April, 2016.  Team members were Apfelbaum, Dr. Richard Teague, Texas A&M University, Dr. Christian Davies, Soil Scientist, Shell International Exploration and Production, Peter Byck, Arizona State University, Director & Producer, Carbon Nation, Russ Conser, CEO, Standard Soil, retired head of Shell GameChanger, and Dr. Henk Mooiweer, Chemist, Innovation Consultant, retired Shell GameChanger.

The concept of AMP grazing, as explained to the senior White House officials, is to emulate the historic land conditions where large herd migrations of species such as bison, caribou, or even wildebeest coevolved with grassland ecosystems.   Highly intensive, short-term grazing in small paddocks is followed by long carbon-storing recovery for each paddock.

Along with another pilot soil carbon project AES conducted recently on cropping strategies in the Palouse Region (western U.S.) for a USDA Conservation Innovation Grant, these pilot projects demonstrate that regenerative cropping and grazing management can enhance both stored soil organic carbon and rates of water infiltration.

The pilot projects have also led to the concept for a 1(00) Million Tonne Challenge, a vision of enlisting ranchers and creating incentives to sequester 1 million tonnes of soil organic carbon in three years, ramping up to 100 million tonnes of sequestration by Year Ten.

Film producer Peter Byck writes, “There are 3.5 billion hectares of grazing land on earth.  If – and this is a big if – we could store just one ton of additional carbon per hectare annually over all 3.5 billion hectares, then we would be able to draw down just about the same amount of carbon we emit each year that doesn’t get absorbed by the oceans, trees, plants and soils – nearly cancelling out the leftover carbon that’s causing climate change.

“But, as my scientist friends say, it is much more complicated than that.”

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Erin StraubSoil Organic Carbon is the new Hollywood starlet