Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Importance of Restoring Global Soil Carbon

(Global restoration of soil carbon is essential to reducing C02 parts per million in the atmosphere.)

Let's talk about first, why reducing greenhouse emissions to 0 today, isn't near enough to stop drastic climate change. This past month, research studies revealed we have surpassed 400 parts per million of C02 in the atmosphere. This is primarily due to human activity since the industrialization of our societies. If we were to completely stop all fossil fuel burning today, and be completely dependent on clean renewable energy sources, as nice as that sounds, we haven't dug ourselves out of the hole yet. While we bicker today over slowing the rise of parts per million, the reality is we must reduce the parts per million that are already in the atmosphere to effectively mitigate the effects climate change. To do that, we must sequester much more than we are emitting. So how do we go about sequestering, as we also reduce our emissions? View the biomes that we can restore in comparison of how much carbon they sequester on average, then reflect on what biomes are native to your region.

(In Eastern and Midwestern America Temperate Grasslands are carbon hoarders.)

Vegetation and soil ecosystems currently have over 2 trillion tons of carbon sequestered. This is more than 350 times the annual global green house gas emissions. But compared to historic conditions, soil carbon levels in most agricultural fields and many other human altered landscapes types are now reduced by 60 to 90 percent in reference to soil carbon remaining.

In Eastern and Midwestern American the dominant biome is Temperate Forest because of our ample to moderately high rainfall. Wetlands sequester the most. Preservation and restoration where they historically were is their best approach. This is because they only made up .5% of Ohio's original land and pose unique challenges with recreating where they weren't naturally. Grasslands survive where local or regional conditions have rainfalls that aren't adequate for trees to dominate. That doesn't mean that Grassland ecoystems, which once covered much of East in a hotter a drier time period, aren't maintainable within higher rainfall regions. It's a matter of installation techniques, maintenance, and design which truly  requires people in the know. In my opinion restoring native temperate grasslands within Midwestern and Eastern America when referring to specifically carbon sequestration, would be at this point more sustainable than the temperate reforestation and this is why....

Not only do temperate grasslands sequester more carbon on average than temperate forests (see above chart), I argue that because the majority of the carbon is stored in the soil, and not in above ground wood like that of a forest, it's much less susceptible to being re-released unless plowed. Thousand Canker Disease is wiping out the Walnuts (Juglans sp.) coming from the west, the Emerald Ash Borer is killing the Ashes (Fraxinus sp.), the Wooly Adelgid eradicating Spruce (Picea sp.) and Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), Sudden Oak Death-Oak Wilt- and Gypsy Moths threatens the Oaks (Quercus sp.) and the Asian Long Horned Beetle has the potential to destroy many other species as a generalist pest. Don't forget the American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) and Elms (Ulmus sp.) have already been decimated and Beech (Fagus Sp.) Bark Disease is currently spreading in the Northeast.  What dominant American Temperate trees are currently safe, Hickory (Carya sp.)? And what's to say down the line foreign insects and pathogens don't threaten Hickories also?

Not to say the Eastern and Midwestern forest isn't worth reforesting, rather, in the conversation of sequestering the most carbon, with the most sustainable, and economically recoverable ecosystem, we need to consider the amazing abilities and resilience of American Grasslands.

(An American Tall Grass Prairie reaches it's carbon equilibrium between 20-100 Years)

When looking at a reforestation project, depending on the density of the initial planting and the maintenance, you can expect a closed canopy by as little as 10-30 years. But it won't reach a comparable level of carbon sequestration to a temperate prairie or grassland (same thing), until perhaps 70-100 years. Forest ecosystems store a significant majority of their carbon above ground in the form of wood and annual or evergreen foliage. Grasslands store the majority of their carbon in the soil through the annual break down of extensive root systems that reach 3'-9' feet into the soil depending on the site and plant. Literature states that temperate grasslands sequester soil carbon in a non-linear pattern and finally reach their equilibrium of soil carbon stabilization within 20-100 years. Let's say "carbon maturity" means that the biome has reached its maximum carbon sequestering capacity. Then what the this reveals is that grasslands mature in reference to sequestration, much faster than forests. Given the quicker "carbon maturity" timeline, the greater carbon sequestering ability, the resilience to drought, fire, and flooding, the resistance to foreign insects and pathogens, and the protection of the carbon once sequestered (underground), it has become obvious to me that temperate grasslands deserve a front row seat in the quest of carbon sequestration.

(The Earth Partners estimate that there are over 100 million acres of degraded land in U.S.)

Where do we start restoring our soil carbon? Agricultural lands are a huge source of green house gas emissions from the unsustainable management practices of modern farming we've adopted.  It has been estimated that there are 2.2 billion hectares (1 Hectare = 2.471 acres) of degraded agricultural lands acting as GHG emissions sources where soil carbon restoration could alleviate emissions and increase sequestration. Even then, there are an estimated 5 billion hectares of "under managed" or "improperly managed" grazing lands, grasslands, savannahs, and agricultural lands worldwide that can benefit from the soil methodology Earth Partners has developed. With every 1% increase in soil organic matter on that 5 billion hectares worldwide, we remove 64 parts per million of C02 out of circulation. Soil carbon is the elemental carbon contained within soil organic matter. Right now we are at 400 parts per million of C02 in the atmosphere, let's say we are heading 550 parts per million before we reach a point in time in which we've stopped raising the parts per million. To get from 550ppm back to 280ppm (pre-industrial levels), 270ppm must be removed. So globally a 4.2% increase in soil organic matter on those 5 billion hectares, would potentially reverse the expected situation. We know now that degraded, mismanaged, marginal agricultural lands are an excellent candidate for soil carbon sequestration, but how else can the world?

(The Lawn Institute states that there are 46.5 million acres of lawn in America, 20-25 residential)

In a previous blog post I tried my hand at some improvised calculations using listed sources to estimate the carbon foot print of an acre of lawn. I factored mowing emissions, irrigation, fertilizer, and the sequestering abilities of turfgrass. The results were that the way we maintain our lawns in America, the net carbon footprint is around 6,000 pounds of C02 per acre, per year, conservatively. With 20-25 million located in the commercial and industrial sectors, that presumably do not utilize their large lots of lawn as much as the residential is used, we have an opportunity to sequester soil carbon while cutting emissions close to home. As I stated in the blog post, 5% of U.S. annual carbon emissions come just from lawn equipment. That's apart from the fact that we use potable water to irrigate, pumped into our house which has a large carbon footprint also. We potentially cut annual carbon emissions by well over 5% with the elimination of lawn, but lawn has valuable foot traffic resistant green space qualities for recreation within our metropolitans. So instead let's focus on the residential properties with homeowners that do not utilize their lawns and would like less, large lot owners with excess lawn, and the commercial/industrial lots that include schools, churches, and corporations.

The opportunity to restore different types of grasslands (depending on your region) to increase soil carbon sequestration while cutting into that large carbon foot print of lawn within our own neighborhood, is now. These type of restoration projects will reduce maintenance, save land owners mowing/irrigation costs/time, and strengthen local ecology when properly implemented along with the aforementioned sequestration benefits. When the design is well balanced with the prairie wildflowers, the aesthetic benefits and ecological benefits are also numerous. But even 100% grass prairies without wildflowers offer airy, wind animated textures that climax with excellent displays of fall color and winter structure. This post isn't about local agriculture/permaculture, but I'd like to acknowledge that our 20-25 million acres of residential lawn could also play an environmentally friendly role in localizing food sources when using sustainable practices.

Future carbon tax credits, and taxes along with the current cost reducing design of grassland restoration in lawn areas also make this an attractive economic prospect. Look what this church in Tennessee did to save money, and consequently the environment by installing acres of tall grass prairie in replacement of lawn.

(The science and techniques of creating a stable prairie/grassland community must be respected.)

Whether you're an school district looking to cut mowing costs, a farmer taking advantage of land preservation grants, or interested homeowner with an infatuation for butterflies, the principles and techniques of establishment and maintenance are paramount. Avoid landscaping companies as they will use seed mixes that often don't use all native species or have to many annuals that will yield to perennial weeds. Seek out a local specialist (shameless self promotion insert), or local company that specializes in prairie restoration and/or habitat restoration. If you'd like to try it yourself, I will list multiple educational sources that will start you on your way. But beware! Improper seedling identification, wrong seeding rates, and under or over management within the 1st 2 seasons can and will lead to a dysfunctional weedy mixed community of plants. Flawed installation and design may lead to lessened soil carbon sequestration, degraded aesthetics, and promote noxious weeds.

The focus of this blog post was to bring together my research on the published literature about soil carbon and its' climate change mitigation potential. Along with showing how environmental professionals, commercial/industrial land owners, and/or homeowners can do their part in reducing our parts per million of C02 in the atmosphere. Now I'd like end this post with a youtube video giving some more visual definition of prairies, followed by some additional resources and lastly an easy to understand soil carbon lecture video.

Books for Average Joe and Jill

Books for Students and Professionals

Sunday, May 12, 2013

American Landscape Beauties-Herbaceous Edition #2

America, just like most countries, has a wide variety of indigenous, uncultivated, wild growing plants adaptable to naturalistic-style and/or formal landscaping sites. Most people refer to these as native plants, and I'm going to create a series of blogs showcasing some of the midwest's most ornamental, landscape adaptable uncultivated native plants. In case you don't know the background on why the native plant movement is growing, for your information, native plant gardens serve as building blocks of metropolitan or even small town ecosystems. American insects and wildlife evolved to rely on native plants, so when we increase the amount of native plant landscapes, we can directly better the health and biodiversity of our local ecosystems, assuming you've selected plants native to your region.
The caption of the following pictures will give the plant names, latin and common, sun exposure, moisture tolerance and landscape setting which will be either naturalistic or formal or both. A naturalistic landscape would be like cottage garden styles, small meadow gardens or even meadow/prairie seedings or installations. Formal would be traditional, grouped, mulched and manicured, homeowner's association compatible landscaping. This the Second of a series showcasing our landscape compatible native plants with 5 native forbs or grasses displayed each post.

 (Grey Headed Coneflower-Ratibida pinnata, Full Sun, Moist to Moderately Dry, Naturalistic Only)

Grey Headed Coneflower ranges west to Nebraska, south to Florida, East to New Jersey, and North into Canada. Here in the midwest it prefers moderately moist to moderately dry soils, but is adaptable to well drained sandy soils in regions with over 24 inches of rainfall per year. Small butterflies and skippers are sometimes seen seeking nectar on this plant, but it is primarily pollinated by different species of bees. In formal gardening it will be hard to maintain, as it responds with vigorous floppy growth when given water, fertilizer, and little to no competition. In naturalistic gardens, meadow gardens, and prairies it is at home standing tall and erect at 3.5-5 feet giving a vibrantly gold blaze topped with an oval shaped cone that begins grey-green colored and turns brown as individual flowers open. The versatility, pollinator support, and aesthetic elegance of this native plant gives it the potential to be a staple plant for naturalistic gardening and prairie installation. This plant blooms from Late June to Early August depending on rainfall, and site. If your local midwestern or eastern state park or county park has a prairie preserved, or reconstructed, you will most likely find this plant in full glory mid-July.

(Prairie Dropseed-Sporobolus heterolepis, Full Sun, Moist-Dry, Formal or Naturalistic)

Prairie Dropseed is the very fine textured bunch form grass pictured growing in this formal landscape around Baptisia australis. Prairie Dropseed grows in moister areas of the shortgrass prairie region, and drier areas of the mixed and tallgrass prairie regions. It's native range is west to Wyoming, south Oklahoma, East to the coastal states and North into Canada. This grass will get 1 to 2 feet in height with a weeping mop-like form. One unique value of this grass is that when in bloom, it give of a fragrance many compare to popcorn! It has very good manners for your formal garden designs, but also is tough enough to not disappear within your naturalistic designs. In prairie seedings, seed it heavier than the tall grass species as the tall grasses will already have a competition edge by nature. The soft, needle-thin blades soften any hardscape edge, and give wonderful contrast to broad textured plants. The fall color and winter form are most impressive, serving coppery gold in the fall, and relaxing gracefully with a golden brown in the winter time. Ecologically, as a dominant grass within areas of the mixed and shortgrass prairies, they are a cornerstone species within the states they populate most. In the East where they are less common, they still can serve as high quality habitat for prairie dwelling insects and animals when planted in mass or seeded as a dominant specie. 

(Blue False Indigo-Baptisia australis, Full Sun, Moist-Moderately Dry, Formal or Naturalistic)

Easily one of my top 5 favorite native herbaceous plants to landscape with because of it's mesmerizing blue blooms that only a skilled photographer could do justice to, the formation of the leafs along the stems, and the bushy yet well mannered habit. When planting Baptisia, as with many other native plants, one must accept that native moths and butterflies, will lay their eggs on this plant and their caterpillars will follow. I've never seen the caterpillars do significant damage other than to plugs that were less than 2 months old. In addition to Baptisia being a good host plant, it is a Bumble Bee magnet in Early to Mid May. The bloom period lasts about 2 to 3 weeks. Only to give way to large bloated bean pods that turn an attractive charcoal black retaining interest throughout the growing season. Baptisia australis fixes it's own nitrogen with the help of microbes, like many other legumes. Along with being efficient with nitrogen, it's deep taproot prove the plant to be drought tolerant throughout the East, South East, South, and Midwest. To make sure your seed crop is highly viable (if you plan on growing), and to ensure a yearly breath taking display, water your Baptisia just once or twice late summer in the case of prolonged droughts, until the subsoil is moist again. That isn't necessary, but is a good rule of thumb for most landscape perennials, native or non-native. Baptisia australis is native to moist and seasonally flooded or seasonally wet prairies known as mesic and wet-mesic prairies. So even while it will be more drought tolerant than most landscape plants because of it's prairie origin, you'll make a life long friend with deep watering during the late summer months. Literally, a life long friend, Baptisia have been found to live over 50 years long. In formal landscapes use Baptisia as an ornamental herbaceous shrub, or grouped in backdrops. In naturalistic gardens utilize fine textured grasses to complement Baptisia australis' bold texture. Depending on what kind of prairie you may construct, the Baptisia genus is full of adaptable spring time bloomers which are hard to find in the prairie community. 

(Obedient Plant-Physostegia virginiana, Full Sun, Momoderately Dry-Moderately Wet, Naturalistic)

Obedient Plant favors moist, sunny habitats west into Montana, South to Tennessee, throughout the East and North East, and North into Canada. It is called obedient plant for one's ability to twist and turn the flowers and have the flowers conform to their newly faced positions. It is incompatible with most formal landscapes, and would have to be skillfully designed into such a design. The root system consists of a central taproot and lateral rhizomes which are responsible for aggressive asexual spread in open moist to seasonally wet soil. The formation, habit, and color of the plant in flower make it highly attractive to naturalistic designs and prairie/meadow seedings. It brings it's stunning display late in the year, around Cincinnati, usually not until Late August-September. Bumble Bee species (Bombus sp.) are responsible for the bulk of pollination, but the larger species that would rather not squeeze into the flowers, steal nectar by puncturing the flower from the outside to retrieve nectar with out pollinating. This plant is also occasionally visited by Hummingbirds. In a moist-mesic or wet-mesic meadow seeding this is a great plant for late season color and general diversity, but should not be planted or seeded to be a dominant species as it's wildlife value to birds, mammals, and insects is relatively low. Maturing at 2 to 3 feet, this plant is sure to stop any camera bearer in their tracks for a close up in the late summer.

 (Tall Coreopsis-Coreopsis tripteris, Full Sun, Moist-Moderately Dry, Naturalistic Only)

The tallest and perhaps most interesting of the American Coreopsis is arguably Tall Coreopsis. Native to wet mesic and dry mesic Mixed Grass Prairies and Tall Grass Prairies, this will compete with bully tall grasses like Big Bluestem and Indian Grass effectively. Tall grasses actually help prop this lanky specimen up, usually reaching a minimum of 4 feet tall, but more commonly over 6 feet tall. The foliage turns an attractive dark red in the fall and the plants look best in mass with at least 3 grouped together within the backdrop of a naturalistic landscape design. In prairie and meadow seedings/installations, plant/seed them randomly as the tall accents will add great vertical interest where ever they land. The coreopsis genus flowers in general are very friendly to a wide variety of pollinators. From short tongued to long tongued bees, butterflies and flies so if planting for ecological value this is a solid pollinator supporter in the hot dry month of August. Tall Coreopsis will also diversify the infrastructure of your prairie or meadow garden. Many insects bore into the stems of such tall forbs and over winter within them, so leaving these up over the winter into spring raises the habitat value of your planting.  Don't bother trying to work this plant into a formal design, it's habit is too "free" to conform to such a controlled landscape, which I think adds to it's appeal within naturalistic designs.

Thanks for reading, I hope you've gotten something from this showcasing. If you have any comments, questions, or requests for specific native plant descriptions for ones you would like to learn about, leave them in the given space below.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Vanpooling-A Green Form of Mass Transit You've Never Considered

(vRide's vanpooling program has a strong impact per van on reducing transit carbon emissions.)

Scooters, buses, hybrids, trolleys, bikes, ect. ect. I've heard many forms of transportation pedaled as more environmentally friendly and until this past Green Umbrella Sustainability Summit I had never heard of Van Pooling. First's let's talk more about the challenge of a sustainable transit system.

Transit is one of the most challenging transitions required of a sustainability society to date. Just in Cincinnati, we have a "Day Time" population of over 1 million yet within the city limits our population is near a third of that. The reasons is because our metropolitan is built on the ability to drive 10, 30, or even over 50 miles to work and then the same distance back utilizing our over loaded traffic infrastructure. With the 4 to 6 day work weeks and suburban sprawl locating commuters further away from their work destination, transit has become a major piece of the pie of annual carbon emissions in America, and the American family budget. According to the annual cost of driving a midsize car is $9,122/year with depreciation, taxes, maintenance, insurance, interest and other figures considered.

 (A pie chart put together by the EPA.)

28% of the pie above is carbon emissions from our transportation system. Raising miles per gallon standards for vehicles may prove to be a powerful tool, along with the advance in green car technology. But still, as we eventually transition to renewable electricity sources such as Solar and Wind energy, we can't honestly expect to support over 300 million American's transit on electric vehicles with renewable energy.  One part of the sustainable transit equation is reducing the amount vehicles on the road. Remember, reduce, reuse, recycle? Let's say recycling could be compared to using renewable energy to power electric cars but reducing is the best and most sustainable part of that phrase which points to the different types of mass transit.

(Stats from vRide's brochure show potential impact of reducing vehicles on the road.)
This blog post isn't to advocate for any specific type of mass transit, but this post is meant to introduce this effective vehicle reducing form of transit into the conversation of more sustainable types of transit. This specific company vRide, which I was again introduced to at the Green Umbrella Sustainability Summit, eliminated 23 million vehicle commuting trips. Imagine if these kind of ideas actually one day made up 5-10% of our transit?

(On Vride's website they even provide a money, fuel, and tree equivalent for your usage)

This type of travel I think would lend itself particularly to people who work within the same office building in a downtown area, and also live within a reasonable distance of each other but rather not be reliant on a bus schedule. Companies like vRide pay the maintenance, and repairs of the vehicle, while the consumer's group split other costs saving the group money, and reducing Co2 emissions at the same time. They also provide a turnkey solution providing the vehicle, maintenance, insurance, etc, so the group simply shares in the monthly cost, which is far lower than driving alone.
I see these types of services more of a privatized mini-bus system in which you know the people you're riding with, you're still reducing the amount of cars on the road, you're not restricted to a bus schedule, and you're still saving money which sounds is a win-win-win to me. Technically vRide's vanpooling business is considered privatized public transportation by local, state, and the federal government. So Federal Employers can receive up to $245 per month to pay for their use of public transportation, whereas private citizens may be able to pay on a "pre-tax" basis of up to $245 per month. This rule applies to all "Qualified Transportation" which includes buses, trains, ferries, and vanpools but not carpools.

These companies are primarily still using gas vehicles but we all know where the future holds for gas. So as our transit system transitions to hybrids and electric cars which will transfer an amazing energy demand from oil to electric grid, presumably powered by renewable energy, we will be faced with the need to have a diverse and accessible mass transit system. Vanpooling offers an avenue for a more user-controlled, and user friendly form of mass transit that could be attractive to people not so sold on or comfortable with mass public transit like light rail, subway systems, and buses. The average household uses 1,143 gallons of gas per year and it is expected that the number of cars and trucks on already crowded highways will double in the next 30 years. So the importance of an highly efficient mass transit system cannot be overstated especially with an ever growing population and currently costly system that is responsible for 28% of Americas annual Co2 emissions and again, according to AAA $9,122 per year for a midsize car. So here's to a piece of the puzzle you've never heard of, and perhaps a more feasible way for you to help reduce your carbon footprint while saving money.

For more information about specifically vRide, contact Don Jenkins at