Study about new ways of protecting carbon in soil could influence farmers

Thanos Papanicolaou

Thanos Papanicolaou

A recent study led by UT Goodrich Chair of Excellence Thanos Papanicolaou will help inform farmers and improve agricultural techniques designed to preserve and restore soil organic carbon (SOC) for healthier soil.

Carbon is essential to soil, but it is easily depleted from intensively managed landscapes—primarily through farming practices that strip carbon from soil without replacing it.

Responsible for fueling the growth of plants, carbon also increases the soil’s water storage, among other things.

“We need to know how much capacity soils have to store carbon after they have been tarnished from agriculture,” said Papanicolaou. “Soils that have been damaged lack the ability to absorb organic matter and provide refuge to microbial communities.”

This new research focused on ground slope and its relationship to concentrations of carbon in the soil from organic sources.

The paper, published in the November 2015 issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research—Biogeosciences, focuses on providing supporting evidence for the benefits of conservation farming techniques and suggests that damaged soil can be repaired over time.

The goal of the study is to provide more accurate predictions of SOC stocks at the hillslope scale by accounting for the role rainsplash/runoff and tillage erosion on SOC redistribution under different conditions.

A professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Papanicolaou co-authored the report along with doctoral students Ken Wacha and Ben Abban, research faculty member Christopher Wilson, USDA–Agricultural Research Service National Lab for Agriculture and Environment Director Jerry Hatfield, the University of Iowa’s Charlie Stanier, and Purdue University’s Tim Filley.

The team divided developed land into two regions to monitor organic carbon stores—upslope and downslope—and developed a model to find out how much organic carbon was in each region at the start and how it was redistributed during different crop rotations.

“Our study combined hydrology, biology, geochemistry, engineering, and mathematics in a way not previously conducted,” said Papanicolaou. “In the previous Dust Bowl study we showed that soils were improving, but the methods of farming from 1935 to 1987 have taken their toll.

“The present study builds on that finding and proposes new ways for assessing soil quality and health. New dynamic ecosystem indices have been developed based on the previous analysis included in the Dust Bowl study.”

The program stems from a partnership co-led by Papanicolaou and Professor Praveen Kumar from the University of Illinois, the lead institution.

C O N T A C T :

Élan Young (865-974-8786, elan@tennessee.edu)