Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Terra Preta Soils - Agricultural Miracle from the Past?

Sometimes we literally can't see the forest for the trees. In recent years there has been a great deal of scientific interest in a soil phenomenon in South America's Amazon River basin, a phenomenon called Terra Preta.

Scientists now understand, though they did not until recently, that Terra Preta soils are anthropogenic, created by man. They were, in fact, created hundreds, even thousands of years ago through the efforts of indigenous peoples living and thriving in the Amazon River basin. It was only recently, through efforts to re investigate myths from Spanish explorers about the fabulous golden cities of El Dorado that the forest behind the trees finally started to come into view.[3] It was through those efforts that the full extent of anthropogenic Terra Preta soils in this area were finally realized. It is estimated that as much as 10%, maybe more, of the soils in the Amazon basin are Terra Preta soils. Only after understanding these magnitudes did archaeologists finally understand how there had been a sufficient agricultural base to support the vast ancient civilizations (now estimated to possibly number into the millions of people) in the Amazon basin, civilizations that, until recently, had largely been written off as myth.

What is Terra Preta soil? Essentially, and it is a mistake to believe this gives a complete understanding of what makes Terra Preta work, Terra Preta is soil that has been enhanced by black carbon, derived from charcoal, and other organic matter. But there is more. A report entitled Isolating Unique Bacteria from Terra Preta Systems: Using Culturing and Molecular Tools for Characterizing Microbial Life in Terra Preta, states, "The greater fertility of Terra Preta (TP) soils is thought to be due to their high black carbon (BC) content, which contributes to increased nutrient and moisture retention, and increased pH. It is likely that the unique chemistry of BC results in distinct microbial communities involved in nutrient cycling and organic matter turnover.[my italics]"[1] With a number of extensive scientific investigations underway on Terra Preta soil, in fact, scientists are coming to realize that the similarities of the bacterial colonies in Terra Preta soils at different locations, even hundreds of miles apart, are far greater than similarities to the bacterial colonies in non Terra Preta soil in areas immediately adjacent to Terra Preta sites.[1, 2]

Here is where I launch into my own speculation. Throughout the history of man nomadic peoples have carried with them from site to site materials and items that are of critical value to them. The Polynesians as they hopped from Pacific island to Pacific island took with them the seeds, roots and seedlings of particular plants that were important to their culture. Early men, as yet not knowing how to create fire, took great pains to carry embers from one fire to start a fire at a new site.

It is not unreasonable to speculate, in fact, that the original pockets of Terra Preta soil were not made by man but rather discovered by man. Over time they may have realized that adding charcoal from their fires to the soil resulted in dramatic increases in fertility. They may have taken this knowledge to a new site and found, in fact, that it didn't net them the results they expected. It may have been, at that stage, that they returned to the site with the fertile Terra Preta soil, gathered up some of that soil and carried it with them to the new site where they mixed it, and more charcoal, into the soil at the new site. It is very unlikely that they would understand what made the original Terra Preta soil so fertile. It would probably have been a form of magic to them, and that Terra Preta soil that they carried from site to site would have been seen as magical in its own rite.

This hypothesis of mine (I'm not claiming it is original or unique but I have not seen similar speculation in other quarters) would clearly explain why the bacterial population in one Terra Preta site is so like that at other Terra Preta sites but unlike the bacterial population in non Terra Preta sites adjacent to Terra Preta sites. The bacteria in the Terra Preta soil did not originate in the soil that was transformed into Terra Preta soil but originated in a Terra Preta site elsewhere and was transported there by the indigenous people who established the new Terra Preta site. This would suggest that the development of the Terra Preta soils throughout the Amazon basin was spread over hundreds, even thousands of years as indigenous peoples criss-crossed the basin moving from one site to another, taking their magical Terra Preta soil with them to seed the soil at the next site.

Regardless of whether my speculation is correct concerning how the different pockets of Terra Preta soil were created, the important point is this. What makes Terra Preta soil work is not the black carbon from charcoal that has been added to the soil. It is the unique population of soil bacteria in that soil that utilizes and thrives on that high concentration of organic carbon. Terra Preta soil, like all soils, derives its fertility not from the mineral content of the soil but from the tens of millions of micro-organisms that live in that soil and make those minerals and other soil nutrients available to the plants growing in that soil.

My caution is this..... do not go out and add a bunch of charcoal or black carbon to your garden thinking it will give you Terra Preta soil with its wondrous fertility. You can, however, buy bags of Terra Preta soil at some better garden centres that can be added to your garden, along with charcoal or black carbon, that will give the desired results.

One more caution..... To my knowledge no scientific testing has yet been done to determine if the bacteria unique to Terra Preta soils can survive in non-tropical soils, most specifically in soils prone to a winter freeze. Until such testing has been completed I would be cautious about trying to duplicate Terra Preta soil in your garden in growing zones subject to winter freeze.

1. Isolating Unique Bacteria from Terra Preta Systems: Using Culturing and Molecular Tools for Characterizing Microbial Life in Terra Preta - 16-Aug-2006
Authors: O'Neill, Brendan; Grossman, Julie; Tsai, S.M.; Gomes, Jose Elias; Garcia, Carlos Eduardo; Solomon, Dawit; Liang, Biqing; Lehmann, Johannes; Thies, Janice
2. Terra Preta
3. BBC - Horizon - The Secret of El Dorado (see particularly minutes 45-48)

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Transportation in a Post-Hydrocarbon World

What will our transportation options look like when we have effectively run out of oil and our other hydrocarbon fuels? An illustrative look back (forward?) at the transportation history of one small town.

I was raised in a small, Canadian eastern Ontario town, the type of unremarkable place you don't really think of as having a history and would be forgiven for not caring whether it did or not. As it happens I believe it's history is a pretty good indicator of the types of transportation options that we may be forced to consider and cope with as we approach the end of our long slide down Hubbert's Peak as the oil and other hydrocarbon fuels gradually run down to negligible levels.

We have an unfortunate tendency to look at the way things are and think that is as they have always been. We rarely give any thought to how things evolved to where they are. I also think they will evolve as hydrocarbons diminish very much like running that past evolution in reverse. Between now and then we may come up with totally new options that never existed during that evolution to the present. Those differences, though, will be in detail. The nature of our post-hydrocarbon transportation evolution will very much mirror our pre-hydrocarbon transportation evolution.

The location of the town had long been a landing and portage site for native Canadians. The large rapids that existed there before the river was dammed were not navigable but the river was an important connector between Lake Ontario and the watershed and large system of lakes above the rapids. The first white men into the area came either by canoe like the natives or on foot along trails established by the natives through the extensive swamps that blanket the area or, at certain times of the year, on horseback.

Later, after a small settlement was established, a passable "road" (I use the term loosely) was developed from another town about twenty miles east. That rough road allowed wagons to get through to the small community to bring in supplies and materials and, eventually, take product out. Until that time any materials coming to the location arrived by horseback or canoe. The attraction in the area was Iron and the first small community built up around a small beehive iron foundry. When a significant body of iron was discovered the owner considered and began construction on a long canal that would cross over twenty miles of countryside to link the mine and foundry to the navigable Trent River to the southwest. The canal was abandoned, not for lack of feasibility but rather for lack of funds.

The next significant transportation development for the community was the establishment of a road running directly from the community south toward Belleville on the Bay of Quinte on Lake Ontario. The key to this road was the building of a corduroy road that crossed the large swamps in order that wagons could use the road. Most corduroy roads, and these ones definitely, needed major work every spring as the winter freeze and spring thaw would cause the log bed to badly heave. At their best corduroy roads were hell to travel in a wagon but the alternative was a much longer roundabout trip on alternative roads that were only marginally better.

In time, as the Victorian railroad age progressed, a small railway was developed linking the community with the large town of Peterborough, about thirty miles to the west. From there there were other railway connections to Toronto to the west and Kingston and Montreal to the east. That small railway never was a profit making enterprise and changed hands several times before finally being absorbed by one of the large railway companies which eventually took the prudent step of shutting it down.

In the meantime, however, a small spur line into the community was established from Belleville to the south, a spur line that was still functional and in use during my childhood. It was not iron behind this spur line (The small iron mining and foundry operation had failed by this time), however, but rather lumber. A large saw mill had been established in the community for processing the timber cut from the extensive forests around and north of the community. The river running through the community was used to deliver the logs to the mill. The railway was used to take the lumber from there to market.

Over the years a number of wooden bridges had been constructed across the shallows in the river about a half mile below the rapids for a road link to Peterborough to the west. Each of those had eventually been washed away in spring flooding. Finally, last century, a higher level concrete and steel bridge was built across the river (by this time the river was dammed and no longer subject to the major flooding it had once been prone to) and that bridge still stands today.

In 1948 a much larger body of iron was discovered southeast of the town. This became the economic mainstay of the community for the next thirty five years. This was a large open-pit mining operation. The raw ore was processed on site and turned into crude pig iron which was shipped by train on a new rail line built into the mine site. That line linked to a port facility on Lake Ontario from where the pig iron was shipped across Lake Ontario to upstate New York and then by rail to a steel processing facility in Pennsylvania. The rail line into the mine was closed down with the closure of the mine.

Over the years the crude roads into and through the community became paved highways, one of them part of the trans-Canada highway system. The community has intermittently also been served by highway bus services but in recent years even that service has declined. The nearest public transportation service connections are now either south in Belleville or west in Peterborough.

Being a tourist area there have long been well-established dock and landing facilities in the town, many of the lake cottagers preferring to come to town by boat down the river.

As we slide down the far side of Hubbert's Peak many of those past transportation options will probably be investigated again. Although the rail lines no longer come to the community the beds on which those lines were laid are still in place, as are the railway bridges crossing lakes and streams at various points. The portage trails, though obscured under community development, are still there and the river could once again become an important corridor. The current highways, once they begin to seriously deteriorate due to lack of maintenance, could be re-established as unpaved roads and trails. Everything old could become new again.

Most communities will have had a transportation evolution of a similar nature. This evolution is the clearest indicator of what is possible again as we get well past peak oil.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Will Peak Oil Result in an Increased Incidence of Scurvy?

Scurvy....... Ar har, me maties. I said scurvy. For most people who are even aware of scurvy, that is the limit of their familiarity, that scurvy was the scourge of sailors in the old days of European sailing ships exploring and colonizing the world. My concern is that it may well become the scourge of Post Peak man as well.

Scurvy, to put it simply is a disease resulting from a deficiency of vitamin C. The scientific name for vitamin C, ascorbic acid, is, in fact, derived from the Latin word for scurvy, scorbutus.[1] Scurvy is an ancient disease. Egyptians recorded the symptoms of scurvy as early as 1550BC.[2]

Symptoms of scurvy include the formation of liver spots on the skin, particularly on the thighs and legs, spongy gums, loose teeth, bleeding gums, bleeding from mucous membranes.[1] It can also manifest itself as soreness and stiffness of the joints and lower extremities, a general state of tiredness and depression, bleeding under the skin and in deep tissues, slow wound healing, and anemia.[2]

Although the symptoms of scurvy have been known for thousands of years, the exact cause of the disease was not finally and definitively established until 1932. The connection between vitamin C and scurvy was, in fact, a key part of Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling's research and his serious dedication to spreading the vitamin C story. The British Navy focused on citrus fruit in the diet of their sailors, despite the fact the reason for the benefit achieved was not fully understood. It was, in fact, thought that somehow the acid in citrus fruit was itself the source of the benefit. This led to the consumption of other mild acids as substitutes when the fresh fruits ran out on long voyages. It was this practice, it is believed, that first led to the term Limies to describe the English. It is also believed that the German belief in Sauerkraut as a solution, which it was not, led to the derogatory WWII term Krauts.[3]

Basically a vitamin C deficiency results in an impairment in the formation of collagen in the body. Collagen formation is heavily dependent on the unstable FE2 form of iron ion. Vitamin C is one of the few organic substances that contains this form rather than the more stable FE3 form. It is this impairment of collagen formation that is responsible for the majority of physical symptoms associated with scurvy.[4]

Humans are one of the only mammals that do not possess a functional, intact gene for the synthesis of the gulonolactone oxidase (GLO) enzyme that is responsible for the continual synthesis of vitamin C in the body, as most other mammals do.[5] Somehow, during the course of human evolution, that gene, though still present, has been damaged and is no longer functional. The last item in the reference list, "Synthetic Biology: Creating New Life Forms by Rearranging DNA"[5] makes a strong plea, in fact, that this is one legitimate genetic engineering project that should be undertaken, restoring the gene for GLO enzyme synthesis to working order.

What has all of this to do with peak oil? Am I one of those who thinks everything is pertinent to peak oil? I do believe that peak oil will impact much of human life as we know it, but not everything. So, what does this have to do with peak oil?

Scurvy, though rare and definitely treatable (today at least), is not unknown. Scurvy is a growing problem among today's teens in industrialized societies.[2] Scurvy in infants is a common problem, particularly with the decline in breast feeding. Pasteurization destroys the vitamin C in milk so infants fed a diet based on pasteurized milk are at risk of developing a vitamin C deficiency. This is the reason that all infant formulas contain added vitamin C, and why vitamin C is frequently added to pasteurized and homogenized milk.[3] Scurvy is also common among seniors due to progressive changes in diet and an all too common elimination of fresh fruits and vitamin-enhanced products like fruit juices from the diet.[1, 3] But scurvy is also very prevalent among large numbers of malnourished people in the third world.[1] It is common for people to assume that the Inuit, who had no fresh fruits in their diet, would commonly suffer from scurvy. Their penchant for eating their meat and fish raw, however, provided them sufficient vitamin C from the tissues of the fish and animals they ate.[1]

The high incidence of scurvy among 3rd world malnourished people is a significant red flag for the future. The gradual break down of the global food production/ distribution system, the gradual breakdown of the chemical/ pharmaceutical technology and industry that produces vitamin supplements, the increasing food shortages due to loss of agrochemicals and the yield problems arising from globally depleted soil fertility, the high concentration of population in areas unable to produce citrus fruits, the potential problems of over-winter storage of fresh fruits as the energy to drive refrigeration becomes a chronic problem, and many other factors which will be exacerbated by peak oil, suggest that there will be a potentially major increase in the incidence of scurvy on the other side of peak oil. This problem may only persist for a decade or so while we adjust to the very changed demands of food production and distribution, or it may become a chronic societal problem as it was in times past.

It is an area that nutritionists looking forward to the needs of the post-peak era clearly need to concentrate on.

1. Scurvy - From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
2. Scurvy Isn't Cool!
3. Diseases Info - Scurvy
4. e-Medicine - Scurvy
5. Synthetic Biology: Creating New Life Forms by Rearranging DNA

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Global Dimming

The Unintended Consequences of Addressing Global Atmospheric Pollution

Global Dimming is the reduction of sunlight striking the earth's surface as a result of particulate matter in the earth's atmosphere. "Particulate matter may be generated by natural processes (e.g., pollen, bacteria, viruses, fungi, mold, yeast, salt spray, soil from erosion)," suggests a paper titled Particulate Matter TSP and PM-10 in Minnesota, "or through human activities, including diesel trucks[all forms of fossil-fuel transport], power plants, wood stoves[and oil, NG, and coal stoves] and industrial processes." It is also affected by chemtrails, contrails and aerosols such as CFCs.[2]

Particulates are differentiated from atmospheric gases such as carbon-dioxide, sulfur-dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. It is, in fact, these two different categories of atmospheric pollutants with their opposite effects that I prefer the title Climate Change over Global Warming. It more accurately reflects the variety of effects of anthropogenic atmospheric pollution than does global warming alone.

Recent studies suggest that global dimming was responsible for a global temperature reduction or .5-2.3C per decade from the 1950s through the 1980s[2, 3]. At first glance this appears implausible in the face of the mounting volume of evidence supporting global warming. How can you have global warming and global cooling at the same time? This was the paradox for decades in the study of the impact of atmospheric pollution on global climate. Scientists wanted to treat the whole atmosphere and all the human-caused pollution together, as a single phenomenon.

Can't be done.

Earth's atmosphere is very complex, with or without considering greenhouse gasses, aerosols, particulates and other pollutants. One can no more understand it without understanding all of the constituents than one can understand the oceans without understand what they are composed of. To try to understand the impact of atmospheric pollution on global climate by only studying greenhouse gasses ultimately leads to an incomplete and inaccurate picture.

Atmospheric pollutants fall into a number of distinct categories, each with its own impact on global climate. There are, of course, the greenhouse gasses (natural and anthropogenic) like CO2, SO2 and methane. But there are other critical components as well; water vapour, fine particulates (natural and anthropogenic), course particulates (natural and anthropogenic), aerosols, and more. There are natural sources for many of the particulates in the atmosphere (e.g., pollen, bacteria, viruses, fungi, mold, yeast, salt spray, soil from erosion) as well as many resulting from human activity. In general the man-made fine particulates originate from our burning of fossil fuels.

The different categories of atmospheric pollutants have been the source of several major paradoxes and contradictions in climate study, such as being both a source of global warming and global cooling at the same time. Other contradictions included particulates being responsible for both a reduction in photosynthesis and an increase in photosynthesis, global dimming being responsible for increased droughts and increased cloud cover at the same time, particulates being responsible for increased cloud cover and being lower during the rainy season, and more. The answers, of course, depend on what type of particulates you are studying, where, when and how you are studying them.

Fine particulates, such as those generated from burning fossil fuels (but also containing a number of serious carcinogens), are lighter than course particulates, stay suspended in the atmosphere for much longer periods of time, occur at much higher altitudes, and travel much greater distances, often many thousand kilometers. They are less likely to settle out of the atmosphere like course particulates and more likely to form the core of rain drops and be removed from the air by precipitation. Fine particulates have been found in air and ice samples at both poles and in air samples from the mid-Pacific far from any land our any source of man-made pollution.

Fine particulates in the atmosphere cause a much greater dispersal and diffusion of sunlight. It is this that scientists now understand increases the overall level of plant photosynthesis as more diffuse light reaches the undergrowth of plants where clean, unfiltered light strikes top layers of plants and casts darker shadows on the undergrowth. This was not fully realized until the 1990s. At this time the concentration of atmospheric particulate matter was on the decline because of global efforts to alleviate atmospheric pollution. While it was expected this would result in an increase in plant photosynthesis it actually resulted in a decrease. It had been believed, up until that point, that higher levels of particulate matter in the atmosphere reduced overall photosynthesis. It does, but this is a result of only the fine particulates. Since course particulates, which cause light diffusion, settle out of the atmosphere more quickly than fine particulates, as the impact of the efforts to reduce global atmospheric pollution began to be felt, it was the course particulates that were reduced first. The greater level of sunlight striking the earth's surface by reducing those course particulates, because the higher levels of diffusion dropped because only the fine particulates were still present, resulted in an overall reduction of photosynthesis as the visible pollution decreased.[2] At the same time the much hoped-for reduction in pollution-induced illness and disease was disappointing.[1] Most of the atmospheric carcinogens and breathable particulates in the atmosphere are fine particulates which persist in the atmosphere for much longer periods than the visible course particulates. Even now, after over a decade of global efforts to reduce visible pollution, major segments of pollution-induced illnesses such as childhood asthma and other respiratory ailments are still on the increase.

The results of the various studies that have finally revealed the full interrelationships between atmospheric pollution, global warming and global dimming have highlighted some truly alarming insights into the impact on agriculture, our ability to produce food, the quality of the food we produce and the overall carrying capacity of the earth both now and in the near-term future on the other side of peak oil and the peak in the other fossil fuels.

1. The impact of global dimming on reducing global temperatures from 1950-1990 softened the impact of global warming during that period. The escalation of global warming as we have tackled visible pollution since 1990, rather than an expected decrease in global warming, indicates that anthropogenic global warming is much greater than studies previously suggested. The introduction of particulates into many of the advanced climate models is validating this.

2. While global dimming increased the overall level of photosynthesis, the greater plant growth resulting was accompanied by a general reduction in plant nutritional value as natural soil fertility is in decline throughout the world.

3. While the arguably beneficial effects of global dimming disappear the full impact of global warming will be on the rise. Growing zones will shift toward the poles with global warming meaning that the means of production will shift increasingly away from the poorest and most densely populated equatorial regions of the planet.

4. The intensity of tropical storms will no longer be neutralized by global dimming but will increase due to accelerated global warming while the water vapour content of the atmosphere which feeds the tropical storms remains high because of the slow removal of fine particulates, which increase cloud formation, from the atmosphere.

5. The increasing levels of soil toxicity that will result from the eventual settling out of the atmosphere of the fine particulates will further degrade the food-producing capability of much of our agricultural soils.

6. The long-term retention in the atmosphere of a still-increasing level of fine particulates still leave us at risk that there may be an interruption of the seasonal shift of the Asian monsoon belt from the tropics to the northern latitude sub-tropics, putting a third of the world's population in China and the rest of Asia at risk from multi-year droughts similar to those that killed hundreds of thousands in Ethiopia and the rest of East Africa during the 1970s and '80s.

7. As the pace of global warming accelerates with the overall reduction of global dimming, the increased atmospheric vapour absorption and retention from the warming and cloud formation from the fine particulates will mean an overall increase in drought levels in the mid latitudes and an overall increase in clouds, precipitation and flooding in the temperate latitudes, most notably in Europe and North America. Both of these will have devastating impacts on agricultural production.


1) Particulate Matter TSP and PM-10 in Minnesota
2) Global Dimming
3) Goodbye sunshine