My heart goes out to those who have lost their homes and buildings in the Jones Fire. And my gratitude goes out to the firefighters who worked in such extreme heat and conditions.
On Tuesday, Aug. 18, the second day of the Jones Fire, the sky had a dark and eerie orange glow, the air tankers were flying overhead back and forth almost constantly. The helicopter that carried the water bucket came by overhead with regularity. There was news of increasing evacuations, homes in danger and fire lapping at our town.
Meanwhile, there had been a severe hurricane in Iowa, a forecast for an unusually severe hurricane season for the east coast with two hurricanes progressing toward the Gulf coast simultaneously, while some 360 fires started by dry lightning in California due to excessively high temperatures combined with vegetation primed for ignition from a low water year — all an unusual set of weather factors. It felt like an ominous time.
Things are changing
Weather extremes are increasing and it’s no doubt due to global warming. I prefer to use the term global warming because climate change seems to soften the impact, as if the change can still be within normal fluctuation. But both terms are perfectly valid.
It all starts in the atmosphere. There are four main layers of the atmosphere. The troposphere is the one we live in.
Then there’s the stratosphere, the mesosphere and the thermosphere.
The troposphere is where we have all our weather. There are two factors that keep the troposphere in a comfortable range: water vapor and CO2. Both hold heat that keeps it from leaving the atmosphere to maintain a comfortable, livable range. Carbon dioxide absorbs much more of the heat than water vapor does, and therefore plays a key role in the heat balance.
In 1957 when scientists started measuring CO2 levels, they were at 0.0310%, or 310 ppm. In fact, historical measurements show that the CO2, while fluctuating, has never gone above 300 ppm until around 1950. But it started a slow rise when fossil fuels started to come out of the ground and get used.
The increase in heat retention impacts the temperatures of the ocean waters and the air, creating new patterns, and more extreme ones. Weather events that have been wreaking a lot of havoc on communities everywhere.
Is this the world we want to pass down to our children and grandchildren?
There are solutions
Once humans started to dig fossil fuels out of the ground, CO2 levels increased slowly, then more rapidly. Humans now emit 4.3 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere annually. It has risen 41% since 1991. Seventy-three percent from fossil fuels and 9% from land use in 2014. Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is imperative if we want to start to reverse trend we’re on.
Land use practices that have done some damage are urbanization, modern large-scale agriculture and desertification of marginal lands.
Pakistan has set an impressive goal of planting a billion trees to fight global warming. It will reclaim lands to improve the soils. It’s wonderfully ambitious and they are currently paying people to plant trees since many have lost their jobs from the COVID-19 outbreak.
yOUR GARDEN CAN HELP
The soil has long been known to be a carbon dioxide sink. But it actually can have tremendous results — with benefits.
In 2015 I went to a climate and agriculture conference at UC Davis. I learned of a research institute that is studying and applying large-scale composting to rangeland. They sought to improve growth and quality of range grasses for grazing and to measure the carbon sequestration in the soil. The results were that the grasses were more productive, the soil retained more water and held more carbon, and the cows were well-fed.
You’ve probably heard that a teaspoon of good garden soil contains more than a billion microorganisms. These include bacteria, several yards of fungal strands, protozoans and nematodes. They all need to eat, and in that underground world is a healthy system of predator and prey, eat and get eaten, that results in a lot of organic matter in the soil. This organic matter feeds plant roots and soil structure.
All that organic matter is composed of carbon-based molecules. Carbon that comes from the atmosphere and gets fixed in the soil to provide a matrix of nutrients and structure which allows water and air to easily penetrate the soil and get held there. The oxygen gets released back into the atmosphere.
Carbon farming and regenerative agriculture
Scientists have found that there is such great potential for sequestering carbon in the soil. But we need to change our agricultural practices. They suggest if we do this right we could sequester most, if not all, of the CO2 that has been emitted by humans so far! This claim comes from the book “Kiss the Ground” by Josh Tickell.
Regenerative agriculture is the term that is used that describes soil-building farm and garden practices that increase organic matter. It uses old practices that include composting, cover-cropping and green manuring, no tillage, and keeps the underground soil world vibrant.
The result of these practices include more drought resistant soil, better nutrition, higher yields and more carbon in the soil. For more information see regenerationinternational.org.
Another resource is the Carbon Cycle Institute at carboncycle.org, which researches and helps farmers implement regenerative rangeland and farms. They call it carbon farming.
Carbon farming is a way to boost the soil with organic matter and microorganisms. And the result is increased carbon storage in the soil, higher crop productivity, increased water-holding capacity, greater biodiversity, and greater weather and climate resiliency.
Even in our own landscapes, getting more organic matter into and onto our soils helps. When soils in landscapes are bare and organic matter is not replenished, they lose soil health and carbon. Using mulches that break down like wood chips or composts, and planting cover crops in vegetable beds, will help to build the soil and soak up more carbon.
Learn more and see the film
Josh Tickell has made a film about this topic, called “Kiss the Ground.” It will be available on Netflix on Sept. 22. Meanwhile, the trailer is now on YouTube. And go to kisstheground.com for more information.
I have only scratched the surface of all the factors that are involved in global warming and soil carbon sequestration.
Doreen Fogle is a landscape designer and writer in Nevada County. More of her articles can be found on her website mydelightfulgardens.com and she can be reached at [email protected]
More: Doreen Fogle: Helping the climate has some extra benefits
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