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A combine harvester in a Colorado wheat field. Thomas Barwick / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Footprints in the soil aren’t something you might normally associate with having a big impact on the environment, but soils are delicate ecosystems made up of circulating air and water that nourish organisms and plant roots, scientists from Lancaster University reported in The Conversation.

Too much soil compaction can reduce plant growth, leading to less available food. It can also increase the risk of floods as the earth becomes less porous, speeding up runoff and filling up waterways more quickly.

Footprints in the soil aren’t something you might normally associate with having a big impact on the environment, but soils are delicate ecosystems made up of circulating air and water that nourish organisms and plant roots, scientists from Lancaster University reported in The Conversation.

Too much soil compaction can reduce plant growth, leading to less available food. It can also increase the risk of floods as the earth becomes less porous, speeding up runoff and filling up waterways more quickly.

Imagine if giant footprints, like those of the dinosaurs — or tread from machines of dinosaur mass — were relentlessly pounding or pushing away at the earth, tamping it down until much of the air and water were pressed out. A new study compared the impact of today’s farm machinery on the soil to that of sauropods, the same group of dinosaurs featured in Jurassic Park and the largest to have ever walked upon the Earth. The largest of the sauropods were thought to weigh about 66 tons —  comparable to a modern, fully-loaded combine harvester, Jess Davies, chair professor in sustainability at Lancaster University, and professor of soil science at Lancaster University John Quinton reported in The Conversation.

Compaction can happen within a few seconds when we drive on the soil, but it can take decades for that soil to recover,” said professor of soil management at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences Thomas Keller, who was the study’s lead author, as BBC News reported.

The study, “Farm vehicles approaching weights of sauropods exceed safe mechanical limits for soil functioning,” was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

When soils are subjected to too much pressure, they can become “chronically compacted,” reported The Conversation, and as farm machinery becomes weightier, that pressure intensifies. Over the last 60 years, farming machinery like tractors has become much bigger, and a combine is nearly ten times heavier now than in the 1960s.

“Soil structure emerges as a central trait for many ecological, hydrological, and agronomical functions, serving as a fragile scaffolding for biological activity,” Keller and co-author Dani Or, who is a full professor of soil and terrestrial environmental physics at ETH Zürich, wrote in the study.

Not only has the weight of farm machines increased, so have the sizes of their enormous tires, The Conversation reported. The width of a tire actually reduces the pressure on the soil’s surface and serves to aid in keeping the vehicle from sinking. Due to this spreading out of pressure, surface-level soil compaction hasn’t changed much with the bulking up of farming vehicles; it’s deeper down where issues arise. As whatever is putting pressure on the soil gets heavier, whether it be an animal or a machine, the more the soil will become compressed deeper down.

“The intensification of modern food production with its reliance on efficient agrotechnical practices presents a growing risk to the maintenance of favorable soil structure and poses a threat to the long-term productivity of arable land. Of particular concern is the steady increase in the weight of modern agricultural vehicles that may have already caused chronic subsoil compaction,” wrote Keller and Or.

In the study, the scientists theorized that damage to the soil ecosystem by the sauropods may have been limited by their sticking to familiar pathways.

The heavy toll of today’s bulky farm machinery can result in permanent soil compaction underneath the first 7.87 inches or so, beneath the level of tilling, which can lead to reduced levels of oxygen in the soil, as well as keeping roots from penetrating deeper, reported The Conversation.

Worldwide, the researchers estimated that 20 percent of farmland has a high risk of productivity loss due to compression caused by modern farming machinery. The amount of soil compaction depends on the vehicle, how it’s used and the amount of moisture and kind of soil. Farms in North America and Europe face the biggest risks due to the prevalence of the biggest farm vehicles being used to till large-scale agricultural operations on soil with high levels of moisture.

“Soil can only withstand so much pressure – whether from compaction or other threats such as continual harvesting, erosion or pollution. Humans must act to reduce pressures on soils, or we risk going the way of the dinosaurs,” Davies and Quinton wrote in The Conversation.

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Coal smoke and steam vapor pour out of the Bruce Mansfield Power Plant across from a largely abandoned children's park in Shippingport, Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2008. Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

About 53,200 premature deaths could be avoided in the U.S. each year if the fine particulate air pollution emissions produced by transportation, industrial activities, the generation of electricity, cooking and heating were eliminated, according to a new study, a press release from the University of Wisconsin-Madison said. Avoided deaths and healthcare costs from illnesses would also result in about $608 billion in benefits per year.

The polluting activities rely mostly on the burning of fossil fuels and so are significant producers of the carbon dioxide emissions driving climate change.

About 53,200 premature deaths could be avoided in the U.S. each year if the fine particulate air pollution emissions produced by transportation, industrial activities, the generation of electricity, cooking and heating were eliminated, according to a new study, a press release from the University of Wisconsin-Madison said. Avoided deaths and healthcare costs from illnesses would also result in about $608 billion in benefits per year.

The polluting activities rely mostly on the burning of fossil fuels and so are significant producers of the carbon dioxide emissions driving climate change.

“Our work provides a sense of the scale of the air quality health benefits that could accompany deep decarbonization of the U.S. energy system,” said the study’s lead author Nick Mailloux, who is a graduate student at the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment in University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, as reported by The Hill. “Shifting to clean energy sources can provide enormous benefit for public health in the near term while mitigating climate change in the longer term.”

The study by researchers at University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Nationwide and Regional PM2.5-Related Air Quality Health Benefits From the Removal of Energy-Related Emissions in the United States,” was published in the journal GeoHealth.

Using a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency model, Mailloux worked with public health and air quality specialists to determine what the health benefits would be from completely reducing fine particulate matter emissions, as well as emissions from nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, which have the ability to create particulate matter after being released into Earth’s atmosphere, the press release said. The toxins are contributors to health issues like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, heart disease, stroke and serious lower respiratory infections.

The study’s researchers looked into how the actions of specific regions to lower emissions would affect the health of the area’s population. They found the potential for a wide array of results in different parts of the country, due in part to geographical differences in population and energy usage.

“Between 32 percent and 95 percent of the health benefits from eliminating emissions in a region will remain in that region,” the study said. “On average, slightly more than two-thirds (69%) of the health benefits from emissions removal in a region — represented by our central estimate of avoided mortality — remain in the emitting region.”

For example, the researchers found that the states that make up the Southwest — California, Nevada and Arizona — would be able to reap 95 percent of the gains from the elimination of emissions from fine particles alone, but such local benefits weren’t seen in all regions of the country.

“In the Mountain region, though, most of the benefit of emissions removal is felt somewhere else,” said Mailloux, as University of Wisconsin-Madison stated in the press release. “Just 32 percent of the benefit remains in states in the Mountain region. This is partly because there are large population centers downwind of the Mountain region that would also benefit.”

However, the study showed that, in every part of the country, national action was more effective than regional measures to lower emissions.

“The Great Plains, for example, gets more than twice as much benefit from nationwide efforts as it does from acting alone,” Mailloux said, according to the press release. “The more that states and regions can coordinate their emissions reductions efforts, the greater the benefit they can provide to us all.”

In identifying short-term benefits of pollution reduction against the backdrop of potentially disastrous future effects of climate change, the aim of the researchers was to inspire greater initiative to curb these outcomes.

“Our analysis is timely, following last month’s report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that called for urgent action to transform the world’s energy economy,” said Jonathan Patz, senior author of the study and a University of Wisconsin–Madison professor in the Nelson Institute and Department of Population Health Sciences, as stated in the press release. “My hope is that our research findings might spur decision-makers grappling with the necessary move away from fossil fuels, to shift their thinking from burdens to benefits.”

Patz added that “people look at this as such a huge challenge, but when you look at the health repercussions of switching to clean energy, the benefits are enormous,” as reported by The Washington Post.

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A plant grown in lunar soil is placed in a vial for genetic analysis. UF / IFAS photo by Tyler Jones

For the first time ever, scientists have grown plants in soil samples collected from the Moon fifty years ago, a feat that could have implications not only for prolonged space exploration, but for plants trying to thrive in harsh conditions on our planet.

During the study, which was funded by NASA, University of Florida scientists grew Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant in the mustard greens family, in lunar soil samples collected during the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions, NPR reported.

For the first time ever, scientists have grown plants in soil samples collected from the Moon fifty years ago, a feat that could have implications not only for prolonged space exploration, but for plants trying to thrive in harsh conditions on our planet.

During the study, which was funded by NASA, University of Florida scientists grew Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant in the mustard greens family, in lunar soil samples collected during the Apollo 11, 12 and 17 missions, NPR reported.

“This research is critical to NASA’s long-term human exploration goals as we’ll need to use resources found on the Moon and Mars to develop food sources for future astronauts living and operating in deep space,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, according to a NASA press release. “This fundamental plant growth research is also a key example of how NASA is working to unlock agricultural innovations that could help us understand how plants might overcome stressful conditions in food-scarce areas here on Earth.”

The study, “Plants grown in Apollo lunar regolith present stress-associated transcriptomes that inform prospects for lunar exploration,” was published in the journal Communications Biology.

Arabidopsis thaliana is a plant that is related to mustard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and other cruciferous vegetables, the NASA press release said. Arabidopsis thaliana is native to Africa and Eurasia.

Lead author of the study Anna-Lisa Paul, who is the director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology Research and a research professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, said samples of the lunar soil —a loose layer of debris called regolith — were “fine” and “powdery,” though the seeds the researchers planted did sprout successfully, reported NPR.

A gram of regolith was used to grow the Arabidopsis, the press release said. The scientists added seeds to the moistened soil, along with a daily mixture of nutrients. As a control, the researchers also planted the Arabidopsis seeds in volcanic ash to simulate the lunar soil.

Plants grown in the volcanic ash lunar simulant, left, were compared with those grown in the lunar soil, right.
UF/IFAS photo by Tyler Jones

“After two days, they started to sprout!” Paul said, according to the NASA press release. “Everything sprouted. I can’t tell you how astonished we were! Every plant – whether in a lunar sample or in a control – looked the same up until about day six.”

The plants planted in the regolith and simulated lunar soil didn’t grow as well as those grown in terrestrial soil, however. The plants also grew differently depending on what group they were in. Some grew more slowly and had roots that were stunted, while others had stunted leaves with a reddish coloring.

The scientists harvested the Arabidopsis after a period of 20 days, just before they began to flower. They then ground up the plants so that they could study their RNA. After sequencing the RNA, they found that the plants exhibited patterns seen in Arabidopsis under stress from growing in different harsh environments, such as when there are too many heavy metals or salt in the soil.

The NASA press release said the research provided a starting point for growing plants on the Moon in the future. It also posed the question of whether the results could help scientists learn how to make the soil on the Moon more amenable to plant growth, and if the study of how plants grow in Moon regolith might possibly be able to help scientists learn more about the regolith on Mars and the prospect of growing plants there.

“Not only is it pleasing for us to have plants around us, especially as we venture to new destinations in space, but they could provide supplemental nutrition to our diets and enable future human exploration,” said program scientist with NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences Division Sharmila Bhattacharya, NASA reported in the press release. “Plants are what enable us to be explorers.”

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