Sunday, March 22, 2009

Is the answer in an ecology textbook?

We could be on the verge of a breakthrough in soil C measurement - which is the only real blockage we need to clear before trading proper can start. We start with a question: Why did Mother Nature make soil carbon so slippery? In other words, why does soil carbon exhibit such spatial and temporal variance? In the case of soil carbon, the answer to the question is “because it does”, the Aristotelian response. It is the nature of soil carbon to be like soil carbon. This is not so silly. What is the nature of soil carbon? It is an ecological phenomenon. It exists in context. It is not a linear substance. It is communal, growing through the combining of many elements and forces. So why, if we took 100 core samples in a paddock, would we have 100 different carbon scores, some of them wildly different? We look for the answer in ecological science. A basic text book - Basic Ecology, Eugene P. Odum, Director, Institute of Ecology, Georgia State University, 1983* - leads us to the following: Carbon's behaviour in a paddock could be an emergent property of a larger functional whole than the individual soil sample.
Here's what Odum says about it:
• “AS components/subsets are combined to produce larger functional wholes, new properties emerge that were not present at the level below… An emergent property at an ecological level cannot be predicted from the study of the components of that level.”
• “Often attributes become less complex and less variable as move from small to large…”
• “Because homestatic mechanisms (checks and balances, forces and counterforces) operate throughout, the amplitude of oscillations tends to be reduced, as smaller units function within larger units. Statistically variance of the whole is less than the sum of the variance of the parts. For example, the rate of photosynthesis of a forest community is less variable than that of individual leaves or trees within the community, because when one part slows down, another may speed up to compensate.”
These concepts provide a way forward for the soil carbon measurement issue: Soil core samples are capable of exhibiting dramatic variance. However this does not mean the whole soil 'individual' is oscillating as violently as the individual samples.
In fact, the variance could be explained as the soil’s way of achieving equilibrium for the moment, like the trees mentioned by Odum. That equilibrium is the true carbon score. A single value that represents the entire soil unit.

How this can be calculated is currently beyond me.

IS THIS JUST A WACKY IDEA? No. Steiner and Lovelock believe it.

The Russians first saw soil as something more than a medium for holding plants up and delivering chemicals to the roots. The scientific basis of soil science as a natural science was established by the Russian V.V. Dokuchaev. “Previously, soil had been considered a product of physicochemical transformations of rocks, a dead substrate from which plants derive nutritious mineral elements. Dokuchaev saw soil as “a natural body with complex processes taking place within it”.
Alexei I. MOROZOV took a further step in a paper called “Soil as a polis of fungi” – making the statement that soil biota is the engine room of the living entity that is soil: Soil biota is “essentially organised, and supreme fungi operate it.” In addition to their role in decomposing litter, the fungi provide “a transport of substances, production of bio-active metabolites, the creation of biophile supply and solid frame of soil”.
Soil is not a simple reactor, but a "home" with multifunctional, hierarchical biota, which is managed by fungi. The hyphae form “nets” (networks). Morozov says new thinking must be applied to creating new models of soil dynamics, with soil as an “integral unit,” which is "stitched" with material bonds. Soil has the features of single whole organism.
Finally Professor Lal believes that soil 'is a living entity'.

We have more exciting news on this new field of opportunity for soil science coming soon!

*Borrowed from David Marsh and long overdue. Thanks David.

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