Dirt: It’s under all of us!

We depend on the humble soil beneath our feet to grow the cotton in our shirts, feed the world with fruits and vegetables, and growing all the commodities necessary to make beer and whisky alike! Given the range of functions soils have on earth it’s no surprise soils themselves have very different colors, sizes, and even smells! If we look closely at soils, especially their horizons resembling layers of a cake, they can be read to ascertain how nutrients got there, how long those nutrients can last for the plants above, and what to do if an area needs to be remediated.

Great soil profile showing the burial of an old soil (reddish-grey) formed on a basalt flow. The soil surface was buried by volcanic ash ejected during the cataclysmic eruption of Mt.Mazama (Crater lake. Photo taken near Cougar Ridge, Eagle Cap Wilderness,Summer 2015.

Great soil profile showing the burial of an old soil (reddish-grey) formed on a basalt flow. The soil surface was buried by volcanic ash ejected during the cataclysmic eruption of Mt. Mazama which is now Crater lake. (Eagle Cap Wilderness, Summer 2015)

12cm is of soil is precariously protected from alpine winds by a thin gravel mulch (Summer 2015).

12cm is of soil is precariously protected from alpine winds by a thin gravel mulch (Summer 2015).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even though humans rely on soils for our health and comfort, we too often take soil for granted. But our guest reminds us exactly how essential soils are to life! Vance Almquist is a PhD student joining us from the Crops and Soil Science Department, in the College of Agricultural Sciences, and focuses on how soils develop in wildland environments, as well as how to read soils in order to understand its historical record keeping. Vance is also known as a soil pedologist, or someone who studies soil genesis, its transformations, and specializes in how to read the language of soil horizons. You might ask, ‘why do we need to know the history of a soil in order to use it?’

Human society developed in the ‘Cradle of Civilization’, an area known as the Fertile Crescent because (as you guessed it) the soils were extraordinary fertile! To practice higher-level agriculture, early settlers built levees to block the floodwaters. But when they prevented the annual floods soils were no longer getting enough nutrients, salts started to build up, and eventually it lead to a collapse of civilizations. If only they understood the soils’ history, they would’ve know the annual floods are essential to maintaining their prosperous way of life. If we know how soils develop, and how to read them, these are the kinds of problems we can avoid in the future.

Hiking toward China Cap in the Eagle Cap Wilderness to describe and map soils (Summer 2016)

Hiking toward China Cap in the Eagle Cap Wilderness to describe and map soils (Summer 2016)

Vance grew up in Utah and before yearning to be a soil scientist he worked at a brewery, trained dogs, and is a master forklift driver. High school was never terribly fun because nothing really challenged him, but he continued to enroll in classes at the local community college. He was really turned onto botany because he always went mushroom hunting as a kid and he saw the practical application of knowing which plants we share the world with. Then he realized how soil science was at the intersection of biology, chemistry, and physics. Here he found his calling because he also noticed how much our economy was overlooking the usefulness of soils and wanted to continue to explore this idea further in graduate school.

Not only can understanding soils avert disasters, but ranges of scientific disciplines are dependent on soils. A botanist can be interested in finding rare flowers, a hydrologist is interested in finding out how much sediment is mucking up the streams, and a meteorologist wants to know how much CO2 is released into atmosphere. Specific soil properties are needed for certain plants to grow, some soils erode faster than others, and soils can become a source, instead of a sink, of CO2 emissions! Soils are integrators of many scientific disciplines and I hope you join us to discuss this with Vance. You can tune in on Sunday November 20th at 7PM on 88.7FM or listen live here.

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