Soil Carbon Storage: The Headache of Grazing

[This is a guest post by Thomas Ross, a 3rd year Biology student at The University of Manchester – he is currently doing a Science Media Project on the effects of grazing on soil C storage, which I am supervising. This blog post is part of his portfolio, and he has to reflect on its impact in his final submission. So don’t hesitate to leave your comment!]

The carbon stored in soil amounts to double that in the atmosphere and biomass combined and soil has the potential to sequester more. As atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have been on the rise there has been an increase in global temperatures and climate change (here, the processes involved in soil carbon storage explained in more detail). The potential of the soil carbon reservoir to sequester this carbon from the atmosphere, and potentially ease the speed of climate change, can be influenced by our actions and the way in which we manage land. One such way is through the grazing of domestic livestock.

Grazing has the potential to modify ecosystems drastically and thus affect soil carbon storage. But how much is too much? Unfortunately, I cannot give you a definitive answer as the effects of grazing on soil carbon storage vary greatly. Some studies showing increases in soil carbon due to grazing, others decreases and some no changes at all. This causes a tricky problem when deciding how to manage livestock to ensure maximum soil carbon storage and withholding the interests of all stakeholders. Continue reading

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One year later

This is my attempt to revive my severely neglected blog, which I enthusiastically started just before moving to Manchester for my fellowship at The University of Manchester, exactly one year ago.

In that year, a lot has happened, of which, I would say, most was condensed in the second half, which at the same time explains why I haven’t written a blog post since August. I did make one attempt in November, entitled ‘My hole in the ground’, but I never finished it, which says it all, really!

It’s been a good, but unbelievably busy, and, from September, unbelievably stressful year:

We set up a new lab from scratch. We just about got most of the equipment set up and running last month! This has been a challenge, at times, with people (including me) running experiments and needing the lab equipment.

It has also been a challenge, albeit (mostly) an enjoyable one, to get to know how everything works at a new workplace, and to start doing my first teaching. Balancing doing research with students demanding attention and juggling new administrative and marking tasks is something that you have to get used to!

I’ve also submitted three grant proposals, one small one and two big ones (I got the small one, didn’t get one big one, and am still hoping for the second big one).

Then, I am also the chair of Plants, Soils, Ecosystems, a new special interest group of the British Ecological Society. We organized our first (Very successful! Read Sarah Pierce’s report of the meeting here) meeting, which was an extremely fulfilling, but at the same time very stressful thing to do – I am sure it will get easier though!

Finally, I have had a complicated operation on my hand, which was very successful, and has resulted in me being able to do all the things that I used to do before I broke my scaphoid 1.5 years ago: mountain biking, climbing, getting out of the swimming pool, even just leaning on my hand.

But what caused last year to be stressful was the fact that all these things occurred at the same time – in September and October. So, I submitted a big grant proposal, just before I harvested a major experiment while not having a fully set up lab, after which I went straight into my operation, after which I had to teach for the first time, then I organised and chaired our first Plants, Soils, Ecosystems meeting, after which I submitted another big grant proposal. Does this sound crazy? It was.

But, now it’s 2014, I feel refreshed and motivated, and I am determined to revive my blog!

So far, the posts I have been writing varied quite a lot in their topic – from my move to Manchester, to academia in general, to more science-y posts about soils in general, and my own research. I wonder what my readers (if there are any left!) find most interesting and enjoyable to read, but I am tempted to make my posts more science-y, about ecology in general, and plant-soil interactions and soil ecology specifically. If you’re interested the latter two: also keep an eye out for Plants, Soils, Ecosystems’ new journal club, in which we will discuss articles that have recently been published within the broader field of soil ecology and plant-soil interactions. I will post the first paper by the end of next week, and we will aim for bi-weekly/once-a-monthly updates, facilitating (hopefully) lively discussions and interaction between people interested in plant-soil interactions!

Blood, sweat, and tears: the story behind the paper

I have already hinted at it in a previous post, and I have been tweeting a lot about it during the past couple of days: our paper ‘Soil food web properties explain ecosystem services across European land use systems’ is now online on the PNAS website! The paper is about, well, soil food webs, and how important they are for ecosystem services. Of course, I already knew that, as did many others, and relationships between groups of soil organisms and ecosystem processes have been shown before. But in this paper, we show that there are strong and consistent relationships between soil food web properties and processes of carbon and nitrogen cycling on a European scale!

Anyway, this is all pretty exciting, but I don’t want to write about the actual content and message of the paper here. No. Because when you see a paper like this, nice and shiny and with a blue PNAS logo on the side, with slick figures, a list of references, online supplementary information, and a small box detailing the contribution of each author, oh, and not to forget the acknowledgements thanking the funder, the landowners, and the people who helped in the lab, you don’t think about all the blood, sweat, and tears that went into putting together such a paper. And blood, sweat, and tears went in it. Continue reading

Cucumber time

In Dutch, we often call the summer month during which not very much is happening ‘cucumber time’. This is a time during which small news items get blown out of proportion, like cucumber harvests failing, ducklings crossing the road, or princes being born.

For many people in academia however, this relatively student-free period is the time to get on with writing those papers. It is also conference time, because of the same reason – no teaching. In addition, for ecologists, it means the peak of the field season.  So, no time for cucumbers after all. Continue reading

Drought belowground

There is a heat wave in the UK, and at least in the north, where I live, not a single drop of rain has fallen for at least three weeks. I quite like it, especially since last year was basically one long, wet, windy autumn and I was craving for a real summer. But, with temperatures this high, and with this little rainfall, many plants are starting to look a bit poorly. Grass is turning brown, and forbs are hanging their heads. Especially in the north of England, where normally everything is lush and green around this time, this is an unusual sight.

I know this all too well, because I am running a drought experiment – our drought pots have been tortured to the max and we wouldn’t have needed the sturdy roofs, while we had to water our control pots.

Does this look dire? Then take a look at what's happening belowground! Pots from my on-going drought experiment.

Does this look dire? Then take a look at what’s happening belowground! Pots from my on-going drought experiment.

So, plants are having a hard time, and I can imagine farmers are becoming worried. Because summer droughts are expected to increase in the UK, and when crops are stressed to their limit, this will lead to yield reductions. Modern agricultural crops have evolved to be adapted to high-resource, low risk environments, and have very different properties than their wild ancestors (read this great paper by García-Palacios et al.) – properties that are not much good for resisting drought conditions.

However, if you think that carnage is going on aboveground, then take a look belowground. Continue reading

Switching off?

I know, it has been embarrassingly quiet on my blog, and I am ashamed to see that my last blog post was almost two months ago – on the 16th of May. Why have I been so quiet? Has nothing been happening in my academic life? Or am I also someone who, after an enthusiastic start, throws the proverbial towel into the ring, as we would say in Dutch? Well, at least, in the last two months, readers of my blog would have found a blog post that said it all: I have been incredibly, ridiculously busy.

So what have I been doing during these two months? Well, in no particular order, I have built roofs for my drought experiment and done the first samplings, I have organised a publishing workshop at the Faculty of Life Sciences of The University of Manchester, I have been on field work for the Ecofinders project, I have been to a knowledge exchange workshop with Cumbrian farmers, I have participated in a workshop about food, health and environmental change, and I have revised and resubmitted two papers. I have also written and submitted a grant, and I am currently writing another one. On top of that, I am writing two other papers, I am setting up a lab, I am an associate editor for two journals, and I regularly review articles for a range of journals. And I am also secretary of the Plants, Soils, Ecosystems special interest group of the British Ecological Society. Oh yes, and I have also been to the Netherlands for a week to visit family and friends.

Writing all this down does make it look a bit ridiculous, and it at least sort of underpins my feeling that I have been pretty much working flat out. Which is slightly worrying, since I have not even started teaching yet! Continue reading

No time!

It has been a while since I wrote a blog post. The reason is simple – I have been away for almost four weeks. First, I went to Aberdeen for a week to extract DNA from my glacier samples (yes, I actually have a project on glaciers, or rather, the soil in front of glaciers, which represents a chronosequence of ecosystem development because of the retreating ice), then I went on holiday to Portugal for almost two weeks (kitesurfing! 25 degrees! sunshine!), and then I went to a three-day workshop. Yes, this sounds great, but coming back from it all is not so great, as I have been struggling to keep up with things, or rather, to get rid of the backlog. Holidays cause stress – before you go to finish things, and after you come back to catch up with things.

Of course, I could have made time to write a blog post. I could have also made time to catch up with friends, to ring my family, to send private emails, to reply to all those non-urgent work emails, and to clean the house. I could have made time to buy a plant for my new office, to take my car for an MOT, or to have my passport renewed. I could have also finally analysed data from last year’s experiment, and talked to a sales rep about the centrifuge that I want for my lab. But none of this was urgent enough.

Kite surfing is very relaxing indeed, but afterwards you pay the price!

Kitesurfing is very relaxing indeed, but afterwards you pay the price!

Continue reading