Farm vehicles are becoming so heavy that they jeopardize future food security in Europe, America and Australia. Larger and more flexible tires have limited the damage on the surface, but below the topsoil, the soil is becoming so compact that its long-term production capacity is threatened. These conclusions are made in a new global study, which also draws parallels to the sauropods, the heaviest animals that ever walked Earth.
The study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) yesterday, was conducted by Professor Thomas Keller from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and Agroscope in Switzerland, and Professor Dani Or from ETH Zurich in Switzerland and the Desert Research Institute in the USA.
Mechanization has greatly contributed to the success of modern agriculture, with vastly expanded food production capabilities achieved by the higher capacity of farm machinery. However, the increase in capacity has been accompanied by heavier vehicles that increase the risk of subsoil compaction.
While the total weight of laden combine harvesters could be around 4 tonnes in the late 1950s, we can today see modern vehicles weighing 36 tonnes in the fields, and the researchers behind the present study decided to investigate what this development has meant for arable land. The contact stress on the soil surface turned out to have remained constant at a low level during this period, which is due to the fact that the machines have been fitted with ever larger tires that distribute the weight over a larger surface. In the deeper soil layer, the subsoil, on the other hand, soil compaction has increased to levels that jeopardize the soil’s ability to produce food. This also has consequences for the soil’s ability to transport water and provide other important ecosystem services.
“Subsoil compaction by farm vehicles is a very serious problem, since once soils are compacted, they remain damaged for decades. This may be one of the reasons why harvests are no longer increasing and why we are now seeing more floods than before”, says lead author Professor Thomas Keller, from SLU in Sweden and Agriscope in Switzerland.
High risk of compaction in one fifth of the arable land globally
The researchers have also produced a map that shows how the risk of chronic subsoil compaction varies around the world and the risk turned out to be greatest in Europe, North and South America and Australia. Globally, about a fifth of all arable land is estimated to be at risk of far-reaching damage that is very difficult to repair. In other words, the chance that these soils will recover is small.
The risk is presently smaller in Asia and Africa, where the mechanization of agriculture has not reached the same high level yet.
“If the mechanization were to gain momentum in Asia and Africa, however, there is a risk of subsoil compaction also on these continents”, says Thomas Keller.
Vehicle manufacturers must pay more attention to subsoil compaction
To contribute to more sustainable agriculture, vehicle manufacturers need to be more concerned about the risk of subsoil compaction and its negative impact on the soil.
“Above all, the wheel loads of modern farm vehicles need to be reduced in order not to affect the subsoil to the same extent as today. The heavier the machines, the worse for the subsoils”, says Thomas Keller.
Did dinosaurs induce soil compaction?
The researchers also show that the heaviest farm vehicles used in modern agriculture approach the weight of the heaviest dinosaurs, the sauropods. This indicates that the sauropods probably induced soil compaction and affected the soil’s production capacity in the same way as modern farm vehicles.
“No one seemed to have wondered whether dinosaurs induced subsoil compaction, but since the sauropods were as heavy as modern farm vehicles, we thought this was a question that ought to be explored”, says Thomas Keller.
Like humans, sauropods depended on the soils ability to provide food, suggesting that they moved across the landscape in a way that reduced the risk of soil compaction. One possibility is that they restricted their movements to fixed “foraging trails” and grazed plants next to them with the help of their long necks. In this way, they could ensure that the surrounding land continued to produce the plant food they needed.
The full study, “Farm vehicles approaching weights of sauropods exceed safe mechanical limits for soil functioning,” is available from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2117699119.
The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied environmental research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students who work alongside them, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge on topics ranging from humans’ impact on the environment to the environment’s impact on humans. DRI’s impactful science and inspiring solutions support Nevada’s diverse economy, provide science-based educational opportunities, and inform policymakers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Las Vegas and Reno, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. For more information, please visit www.dri.edu.
Washington, DC (April 23, 2019) – The Millennium Water Alliance is pleased to announce that the Desert Research Institute, part of the Nevada System of Higher Education, has joined MWA as a new affiliate member organization.
“I am extremely pleased that the Desert Research Institute (DRI) has been made an affiliate member of the Millennium Water Alliance,” said Braimah Apambire, Senior Director, Center for International Water and Sustainability at DRI. “DRI builds capacity of NGO and government staff in developing countries, conducts basic and applied research, and applies technologies to improve the effective management of natural resources, especially water. We look forward to working with other MWA members to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 by 2030.”
MWA Executive Director Keith Wright welcomed DRI, noting that “DRI is a well-respected institution that brings a range of expertise from research to technology. DRI joining MWA is an important contribution to MWA’s strategy to diversify our membership to include business, NGOs and academic institutions that are committed to SDG 6.“
The Millennium Water Alliance, founded in 2003, now has 14 member NGOs: CARE, Catholic Relief Services, Desert Research Institute, El Porvenir, Food for the Hungry, HELVETAS, IRC WASH, Living Water International, Pure Water for the World, WaterAid America, Water 4, Water For People, Water Mission, and World Vision. Headquartered in Washington, DC, MWA is a permanent alliance that convenes opportunities and partnerships, accelerates learning and effective models, and influences the WASH space by leveraging the expertise and reach of its members and partners to scale quality, sustained WASH services globally. New member organizations are approved by a vote of the Board of Directors. For more information about MWA, visit: www.mwawater.org.
Jim Hudson, Ph.D., is a research professor of physics with the Division of Atmospheric Sciences at the Desert Research Institute in Reno. Jim specializes in cloud physics, and has worked throughout his career to gather and analyze field measurements of cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) from around the world. He is originally from Michigan, and holds bachelor’s degrees in physics and mathematics from Western Michigan University, a master’s degree in physics from University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. in atmospheric physics from the University of Nevada, Reno. Jim has been a member of the DRI community since 1970, when he started here as a graduate research assistant. In his free time, Jim can often be found at an ice rink; he is a passionate hockey player and carries his equipment wherever he goes.
DRI: You are DRI’s longest serving employee. What initially brought you here to DRI?
JH: Yes, I’ve been here the longest of anybody – almost 50 years. I came as a grad student in 1970. I had been studying physics at the University of Michigan, looking at aurora and air glow, which is an upper atmospheric phenomenon. But my interests drifted, and the job situation drifted. I had seen brochures from DRI and UNR about lower atmospheric work, mainly to do with clouds, which I thought was a little more interesting. So, I applied and came as a graduate student in 1970, and continued on as a grad student for six years and got my Ph.D. My professor left shortly after I got my Ph.D., but I was able to stay and continue the work that he was doing here.
Inside of the Aerosol Physics Laboratory at DRI, Jim Hudson examines an instrument screen on the CCN spectrometer, used to measure cloud condensation nuclei. February 2019. Credit: DRI.
DRI: What is the focus of your research?
JH: I study cloud condensation nuclei (CCN), which are tiny particles in the atmosphere that cloud particles form on. In my work, I compare the measurements of the CCN with cloud droplet measurements and other characteristics of clouds. Over the years, I have worked with two or three different engineers to develop instruments that go on airplanes to measure the full spectrum of these cloud condensation nuclei. We make the CCN measurements while other instruments on the plane measure the cloud droplets. Then we compare them and write papers on our findings.
DRI: Why are cloud condensation nuclei important to measure and understand?
JH: Cloud condensation nuclei are actually the greatest uncertainty in climate, because many of these particles are manmade, from air pollution. If you have more cloud condensation nuclei, you have more cloud droplets. And if you have more cloud droplets, you reflect more sunlight back to space. This is a primary determinant of global climate.
At the moment, we don’t know how many of these CCN particles are manmade compared to how many are natural. We know that there are natural sources, because certainly there have been clouds long before human beings started perturbing the atmosphere, but we don’t understand the natural sources very well.
Jim Hudson stands near a CCN Spectrometer, an instrument designed by Jim and other DRI team members to measure cloud condensation nuclei from an aircraft. February 2019. Credit: DRI.
DRI: Can you tell us about a project that you’re working on right now?
JH: My latest work, starting six years ago, focuses on the size spectrum of these CCN particles. We have enough resolution in our instruments to detect bimodality in the CCN spectrum, meaning that we are often seeing two different size classes of CCN. And we only see that under clouds. Where you don’t have any clouds, you don’t have this bimodality, you just have one mode (size class). A similar type of bimodality has been observed previously by scientists that measure particle size distributions, but our instrument is the first one that has seen this in the cloud condensation nuclei.
I’ve found that this bimodal spectrum of CCN is having different effects on different types of clouds. When we find the bimodal spectrum under stratus clouds, it tends to make clouds with more droplets but less precipitation, because the droplets are smaller and can’t get big enough to fall out. In cumulus clouds, it seems to be exactly the opposite – when you have the bimodal spectrum, you get fewer droplets and more precipitation. But these observations are only from two field projects. I want now to go back and do additional analysis using data that we’ve collected in about 25 other projects to see if this is a general thing that happens or how often it happens.
DRI: What has been your most memorable day on the job?
JH: That’s hard to say. I’ve been involved with 30 or so field projects over about three decades, all over the world. During those projects, we’d go off for a month or sometimes two months, often on islands, so that we could fly out over the oceans. I’m not a pilot, I would never do that. But I’ve logged thousands of hours flying. The Azores were very interesting. And in the Indian Ocean, the little island of Malé — that was very interesting because you had very polluted air coming off of India, but a few times we flew south, below the equator, and the air down there was very clean. So there was a big contrast.
I used to really enjoy doing fieldwork, but my last field project was in 2011. I thought that I would not be that interested in sitting around analyzing data, but I found that this latest work on the bimodal spectrum is extremely interesting. Looking at the data, analyzing the data – I’ve never had anything more interesting in my entire career.
Reno, NV (Thursday, December 7, 2017): Working with large environmental datasets is a complex and time-consuming endeavor, often requiring huge amounts of data storage, specialized high-performance computers and technical knowledge. Climate Engine (ClimateEngine.org), a new, free web-based application created by a team of scientists at the Desert Research Institute (DRI), University of Idaho, and Google is aiming to change all of that.
New research published and featured on the cover of the November issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS) outlines how Climate Engine improves the accessibility of climate and weather data by allowing users to create on-demand maps or graphs of various earth observation datasets using a standard web browser. Datasets are stored and processed in the cloud on the Google Earth Engine platform, eliminating the need for users to download, store and process large data files on their computers.
Climate Engine provides access to a variety of geospatial datasets that track vegetation, snow and water across the planet, as well as climate datasets that track temperature, precipitation and winds.
One of the web application’s greatest strengths, according to Dr. Justin Huntington, co-principal investigator of the Climate Engine project and associate research professor of hydrology at DRI, lies in the application’s ability to quickly and easily pair satellite imagery with different climate variables.
“We can process field-scale Landsat satellite imagery like we’ve never been able to before,” Huntington said. “For example, we can look at over 30 years of vegetation changes in a certain area and then pair those changes with the same historical record of climate, all within one platform, in a matter of seconds.”
The authors outline the capability of this cutting-edge tool to analyze temperature change in the Arctic, evaluate vegetation stress during a historic drought in the Great Plains, map fire danger and burned acreage in Idaho, monitor groundwater-dependent ecosystems in Nevada, and support famine early-warning efforts in Ethiopia.
Because Climate Engine is free and requires no specialized software to use, Huntington and his colleagues hope that it will be useful to researchers and decision-makers around the world.
“Our work allows decision makers unprecedented access to analyzing big data related to environmental monitoring on their desktops and tablets without needing a supercomputer by using cloud computing resources provided by Google,” said John Abatzoglou, co-principle investigator of Climate Engine and associate professor of geography at the University of Idaho. “The ability to analyze such data in real time will help fill an information void and improve our ability to sustain our environmental resources including water.”
After using the web application to create a map or graph, results can be downloaded or shared in common file formats, saving users hours of time that was once spent downloading and processing large data archives.
“That’s the beauty of Climate Engine,” Huntington said. “Instead of downloading archives to get to the answer, you can just download the answer.”
Climate Engine was originally unveiled at the White House Water Summit in 2016. In the time since the product launched, the web application has been used by more than 8,000 unique visitors across the globe.
Recently, Climate Engine team members Huntington and Dr. Katherine Hegewisch of the University of Idaho presented a talk at the Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) science meeting in Washington D.C., and Hegewisch hosted a workshop for African FEWS field scientists.
Climate Engine will also be on display at the upcoming American Geophysical Union Annual Fall Meeting in New Orleans. The event is the largest and preeminent Earth and space science meeting in the world.
In the future, the Climate Engine team plans to continue adding new datasets such as sea surface temperature and European satellite data. They are also planning to add agency-specific spatial averaging domains, such as agency management boundaries and crop zones, and also hope to continue expanding their education and outreach efforts.
The idea behind Climate Engine, says Huntington, is to make large datasets available to researchers, decision-makers, journalists, farmers, or anyone else who might benefit from the information – and in an easy-to-use, approachable and simple format.
Climate Engine was primarily funded by Google and federal programs of the National Integrated Drought Information System, Famine Early Warning System Network, U.S. Geological Survey’s Landsat Science Team, and Bureau of Land Management’s Nevada State Office.
For more information and use the Climate Engine web application visit – ClimateEngine.org
The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in investigating the effects of natural and human-induced environmental change and advancing technologies aimed at assessing a changing planet. For more than 50 years DRI research faculty, students, and staff have applied scientific understanding to support the effective management of natural resources while meeting Nevada’s needs for economic diversification and science-based educational opportunities. With campuses in Reno and Las Vegas, DRI serves as the non-profit environmental research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. For more information, please visit www.dri.edu.
The University of Idaho, home of the Vandals, is Idaho’s land-grant, national research university. From its residential campus in Moscow, UI serves the state of Idaho through educational centers in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls, a research and Extension center in Twin Falls, plus Extension offices in 42 counties. Home to more than 11,000 students statewide, UI is a leader in student-centered learning and excels at interdisciplinary research, service to businesses and communities, and in advancing diversity, citizenship and global outreach. UI competes in the Big Sky Conference and Sun Belt Conference. Learn more at www.uidaho.edu.
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