Fighting the Effects of Climate Change Through Soil Restoration
Op-Ed from Assistant Professor of Biology.
Illustrations by Yevgenia Nayberg
March 20, 2023
This summer, Central Texas experienced record-breaking triple-digit air temperatures and months without rain. Scenarios like this are expected to occur more often with climate change.
Climate change knows no boundaries. It does not adhere to state lines, country borders, or oceans. Contrary to Las Vegas’s motto, what happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas. The carbon dioxide emitted from the one million cars in Vegas enters the atmosphere and is mixed with other greenhouse gasses from other cars in other states and countries. The effects of these emissions are felt worldwide. Greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere help trap heat, regulating our Earth’s temperature. This “greenhouse” effect is a natural process; without it, our Earth would be much colder. However, burning fossil fuels, which are made of carbon, increases the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, accelerating the warming effect. Greenhouse gases emitted from human activities since the 1800s have led to a 1.2C increase in global temperature. Scientists warn that surpassing 1.5C will lead to devastating impacts on environmental and social systems, including sea level rise, heat waves, and fires.
The most important thing we can do is limit the burning of fossil fuels, the most significant contributor to increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. However, we can also remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by restoring degraded forests, grasslands, and agricultural lands. Restoration of degraded lands is considered a “nature-based solution,” low-cost, low-technology strategies that help reduce the impact of climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This removal of carbon dioxide is done by plants during photosynthesis, but the carbon primarily stays in the biosphere through incorporating that carbon into the soil. Soils store 75 percent of the world’s carbon, more than currently stored in the atmosphere. Restoring soils, which have been degraded by human activity, has the potential to help slow down climate change; however, how much impact restoration can have on climate change and which restoration activities have the greatest impact is not as well known.
This summer, three Southwestern students and I escaped the Texas heat to better understand how restoration activities can be nature-based climate solutions.
Gabby Garza ’22, Lupe Sanchez ’23, and Christine Vanginault ’23 and I researched restoration projects in Colorado focused on understanding how different land management practices can help reduce the impacts of climate change and make ecosystems more resilient to climate change.
We spent time in the field with the cows measuring plants to determine if, after three years of adding locally sourced biosolid compost to pasturelands, we see an increase in plant growth. Compost additions during restoration can play an important role by adding essential plant nutrients to the soil stimulating plant growth and uptake of carbon dioxide.
We also started a new project with Copper Mountain Ski Resort in Colorado to test whether using locally sourced compost and seed sources to restore ski slopes can be an effective nature-based climate solution by storing more carbon in the soil.
An essential aspect of these research projects is the collaboration with scientists, private landowners, federal agencies, and non-profits. With these partnerships, scientific knowledge can inform decision-making.
Colorado is a favorite place for many Texans to recreate. These projects offer opportunities for Texas students to be a part of and engage with conservation and sustainability so that these places can be enjoyed for many generations to come.
The magnitude and severity of climate change can often make us feel so overwhelmed and paralyzed that we do nothing. We must take action no matter how small. My hope is that there are enough of us out there taking action so that, collectively, we can make a difference.