April 22, 2012
The carbon cycle is currently out of balance. Humans have introduced too much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels, causing climate change and changing weather patterns. We have the technology to do work with nature to sequester more carbon. Agricultural land accounts for 455 million acres of the total land area in the US of 1.9 billion acres. Unfortunately, since the time that we have settled the land, the soil organic content has dropped to about less than one-fourth of what it once was.
Humans could sequester organic carbon into soil if we operated farms and ranches with practices that increase and maintain the organic material in the soil. For example, conventional farm practices that include improper tillage and overuse of chemical fertilizers result in about 20,000 pounds of carbon dioxide. We can help control the CO2 released by adding organic material to the soil. Practices in which soil is mulched and rarely tilled result in a dramatic decrease in the loss of carbon dioxide from the soil. Tilling the soil upsets soil life and exposes it to sunlight and oxidation, releasing large amounts of CO2. In the natural environment, the carbon-based roots and other soil life are rarely exposed or destroyed. Such oxidation naturally takes place, but the natural process is much slower, so plants can capture the CO2 and reprocess it instead of letting it into the atmosphere.
California is a huge venue for carbon storage potential, as much of California’s agriculture is perennial. Perennial crop residue is more readily decomposed than annual residues, and perennials store carbon within the woody biomass of trees and vines. Further, with the increase in agricultural yields, the biomass returned to the soils has increased, promoting sequestration. Rice farmers have also contributed to sequestration efforts. Instead of burning the fields after harvest, most of the crop residue is now returned to the soil. Through similar small efforts, California agriculture can greatly increase its agricultural carbon sequestration.
Although there has not been significant research into vineyards as carbon sequestration resources, they hold high potential. Permanent cover cropping has been shown to increase soil organic matter when used instead of bare fallow rotations. Growing cover crops, however, can be negatively impacted by one light tillage annually. Further research is needed to understand the ability of different cover crops to increase soil carbon in vineyards. Still, there have not been many studies of vineyards and carbon sequestration. Vineyard specific studies are needed to understand the effects of vineyard management practices on carbon storage.
California could almost double carbon sequestration by adapting conservation tillage practices and returning prunings to the soil. This assumes that area for perennial agriculture continues to expand, and that the biomass of crops continues to grow. As of 2002, California’s agriculture was not sequestering through conservation tillage although the practice is commonly cited as sequestering carbon by reducing soil respiration. Due to the low erosion potential of the land and the high intensity multicropping, California agriculture has not widely adopted conservation tillage. If further research were done on adapting conservation tillage to California agriculture, we could help restore balance to the carbon cycle.
Christopher Miranda is an undergraduate in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
February 27, 2012
Desertification is defined as the deterioration of land in typically arid areas due to changes in climate and human activities. In the United States, desertification is typically caused by poor farming practices and the conversion of grazing areas to cropland. Climate change intensifies desertification in arid areas because not only are global temperatures rising and natural disasters becoming more extreme, but also the global water cycle and precipitation patterns are such that rainfall is decreasing in most areas and concentrating in a few others. Furthermore, because California is in a climactic region that can be defined as dry subtropical, the effects of climate change and agriculture has led to increased desertification. The short-term and long-term effects of this desertification are numerous and will have many repercussions for both humans and the environment.
The environmental costs of desertification are quite serious and can eventually destroy natural ecosystems. Topsoils lose their fertility and the growth and support of organic life in the pedosphere becomes much more difficult. As topsoil drys out it becomes susceptible to movement from winds, creating new natural disasters such as the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. Furthermore, this dust can be blown out into the ocean and can affect weather patterns. In order to salvage lands affected by desertification, farmers begin to invest more in irrigation, which in turn diminishes groundwater resources and is the beginning of long-term impacts such as drought and famine. Additionally, as the topsoil becomes less nutrient rich from desertification plants become less productive and many of the ecosystem services they were providing are diminished.
Unfortunately, California becomes more susceptible to desertification there is a tendency to focus only on the immediate effects. Important long-term impacts on the environment also need to be addressed, such as the effects on the carbon cycle, biodiversity, and freshwater supply. Vegetation in arid areas stores a substantial amount of carbon (about 30 tons per hectare) and when desertification causes drought and the vegetation dies, that storage is lost. In addition, desertification dries out soil, the organic matter of which is the largest known carbon sink, resulting in increased greenhouse gas effects as that carbon is released into the atmosphere. As soils and vegetation are affected by desertification, ecosystems lose key resources that result in a loss of biodiversity. Desertification also poses a threat to freshwater resources. River flow rates decrease, leading to silt build up in estuaries, which incites saltwater intrusion into the water tables. As the demand for water increases there is a tendency to over-pump aquifers, which can result in water depletion and land compaction. For example, the San Joaquin Valley of California experienced subsidence at a maximum of 28 feet between 1925-1970 from overdrawn aquifers. Because California relies so much on agriculture, farmers exploit aquifer water for irrigation without considering these long-term issues. However, if the agricultural industry were to collapse from drought, we’d be facing the threat of famine and a huge economy crash.
Clearly there are many negative effects from the process of desertification that need to be addressed. Some of the most popular decisions to combat the effects of the land drying out include sustainable farming practices, such as drip irrigation, integrated crops, or no-till farming, and drought prevention. As stated in the 2010 California Drought Contingency Plan, “California’s water resources have been stressed by periodic drought cycles and unprecedented restrictions in water diversions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in recent years. Climate change is expected to increase extreme weather. It is not known if the current drought will abate soon or if it will persist for many years. However, it is certain that this is not the last drought that California will face.” The DCP has moved towards enhancing monitoring and early warning capabilities, assessing water shortage impacts, and creating preparedness, response, and recovery programs, which should help California to conserve water and slow down the desertification process.
Harriet Arnold and Divya Rao are undergraduates in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.