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Michael Pollan: It's Time to Put Carbon Back Into the Soil

Climate
Michael Pollan: It's Time to Put Carbon Back Into the Soil

As the climate talks in Paris concluded, climate activists took note: soil restoration is our ally in the fight against global warming. It is inexpensive, effective and easy to implement, and it yields multiple benefits. Besides capturing carbon and reversing desertification caused by severe drought, soil restoration enhances regional cooling, strengthens resilience against droughts and floods, and improves food quality. It is a necessary second front in our battle against the heating up of Earth’s atmosphere.

How so? Soil holds carbon—lots of it. Other than the oceans and fossil fuel deposits, soils are the largest reservoirs of carbon on the planet, holding approximately two times the amount in the atmosphere and vegetation combined. The dark color of fertile soil comes from the presence of organic carbon compounds.

Unfortunately, over the centuries, a great deal of carbon has been released from soils through both primitive and modern agriculture. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognizes that reducing emissions alone will not stop global warming. Disruptions, it says, are “irreversible” unless there is a “large net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere over a sustained period.”

The good news is that what has been lost can be returned. The excess atmospheric carbon creating anxiety would be far more content in cozy soil. Photosynthesis is how it will get there, through the process whereby plants convert carbon in the air into organic molecules exuded by roots to feed hungry microbes underground.

Ohio State University Scientist Rattan Lal referred to soil restoration as “low hanging fruit” and says it can serve as a “bridge” to climate safety during the transition to a non-fossil fuel economy. In a 2014 white paper, the Rodale Institute showed that regenerative organic farming could capture carbon dioxide in quantities exceeding global emissions.

Indeed, soils are the only suitable reservoir for the excess carbon in the atmosphere.

Politicians are also taking note. France’s Minister of Agriculture Stéphane Le Foll has introduced a program, 4 per 1000, calling for a yearly increase of 0.4 percent in the amount of organic matter in the world’s agricultural soils. Scientific Director for the Environment of the French National Institute for Agronomical Research Jean-François Soussana claims this modest increase in soil carbon globally would be sufficient to offset global greenhouse gas emissions. Depending on how quickly the agricultural community responds, the atmospheric level of CO2 could be kept from rising to levels uniformly viewed as disastrous. At last count, 25 countries, including Australia and the U.K., have announced their commitment to this campaign.

Michael Pollan, author of New York Times best seller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, calls on his faithful to heed this message. In a powerful new video, Soil Solutions to Climate Problems, he says, “When soil is damaged, it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and this has had serious consequences for the climate.” He then offers the “good news: we now know how to put carbon back in the soil where it belongs … What had been atmospheric carbon, a problem, becomes soil carbon, a solution.”

Michael Pollan is right. Soil is a fix, but not just for climate. Restoring soil also ameliorates desertification, a factor that can destabilize already volatile regions. Consider the unprecedented drought—perhaps exacerbated by global warming—that precipitated civil unrest in Syria before the outbreak of civil war there.

We need look no further than the ground beneath our feet in our quest for a more verdant, peaceful world. Let’s embrace this convenient truth.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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