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Environment

Understanding Our Earth, Part I

By: Larry Bricker

FIRST ELEMENT - EARTH

Thomas Jefferson wrote that “civilization itself rests upon the soil.” All people in all cultures trace their origins and their existence to the use of soil to grow food, shelter, clothing and other resources. Apart from the obvious importance of mining, let’s focus on the top few inches of soil. Without food, mining is of little consequence.

Soil is much more than just “dirt”. Soil is a mixture of organic and inorganic, air and water. The 3 major inorganic (mineral) components of soil are sand, silt, and clay. The organic components are organic wastes, living organisms, and the decomposing remains of those living in and above the soil. Nature wastes nothing.

WHAT’S UNDER OUR FEET?

  • Soil makes up the outermost layer of our planet.
  • Topsoil is the most productive soil layer.
  • Soil is formed from rocks and decaying plants and animals.
  • Different-sized mineral particles, such as sand, silt, and clay, give soil

    its texture.

  • An average soil sample is 45 percent minerals, 25 percent water, 25 percent

    air, and five percent organic matter.

  • Natural processes of erosion and weathering can take more than 500 years to

    form one inch of topsoil. (Fungi and bacteria help break down organic matter

    in the soil. Plant roots and lichens break up rocks which become part of new

    soil. Earthworms digest organic matter, recycle nutrients, and make the

    surface soil richer.)

  • Soil scientists have identified over 70,000 kinds of soil in the United

    States.

  • Five tons of topsoil spread over an acre is only as thick as a dime.
  • Five to 10 tons of animal life can live in an acre of soil.

LIVING SOIL?

Soil is actually more alive than dead. Cryptobiotic Soil (meaning “hidden life”) refers to the web of microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, protozoa, green algae, lichens and other invertebrates) plus the sticky sheath of nitrogen fixing cyanobacteria that form an integrating crust on the surface of soils all over the world. This sticky sheath binds with soil particles and helps hold the soil together preventing erosion. The crusty soil slows runoff of rainfall, increasing soil moisture and thus stabilizing the soil. This increase in soil moisture and stabilization affects the abundance, diversity, and health of plants growing in the soil.

Unfortunately, humans have impacted this fragile “hidden life” through crushing by people, off road vehicles, and cattle. This damaged crust produces less nitrogen and carbon, resulting in soil more susceptible to erosion and less supportive to plant and animal life that depend on it.

HOW MUCH SOIL IS THERE?

Picture if you will the earth as an apple with the skin of the apple hugging and protecting its surface.

  1. Since water covers nearly 75% of the earth’s surface, cut the apple into

    quarters and throw away 3 of those quarters. What is left (25%) represents

    the dry land.

  2. 50% of that dry land is desert, polar, or mountainous regions where it is

    too hot, too cold or too high to be productive. So cut that dry land quarter

    in half and toss one piece away.

  3. When 50% is removed, what is left is one half of the last quarter of

    apple (12.5% of the original).

  4. Of that 12.5% slice, 40% is severely limited by terrain, fertility or

    excessive rainfall. It is too rocky, steep, shallow, poor or too wet to

    support food production. Cut that 40% portion away. What you are left with

    is approximately 10% of the original apple.

  5. Peel the skin from the tiny remaining 10% sliver. This small fragment of

    the land area represents the soil we depend on for the world's food supply.

This final small fragment competes with all other needs - housing, cities, schools, hospitals, shopping centers, land fills, etc., etc. And, sometimes, it doesn't win.

WHAT’S BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND?

One of the biggest problems is soil erosion. While erosion is a natural process, human activities speed up the process though poor farming practices, overgrazing of public lands, deforestation, excessive offroad activities, and urban sprawl pushing agriculture into less desirable land that erodes easier.

According to a United Nations Environmental Program survey, topsoil is eroding faster than it forms on about one-third of the earth’s cropland. Topsoil in the US is eroding about 16 times faster than it can form. During the “dust bowl” days of the 1930’s in the US, the entire eastern US was blanketed by topsoil blown off the Great Plains some 1500 miles away. In 1937, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a letter to the governors of the states in which he said, “The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself.” Each year we must feed about 90 million more people on the planet with 24 billion metric tons less topsoil.

As agricultural expert, R. Neil Sampson wrote, “We stand only six inches from desolation, for that is the thickness of the topsoil layer upon which the entire life of the planet depends”.

Our lives and the lives of most other organisms depend on soil. Since we are built from the molecules up by the materials our mothers ate while carrying us (and what we eat) and all those nutrients came from plants (or animals that ate plants) that extracted those nutrients from the soil, it is not much of a stretch to say that we come from the soil. Our soils are the source for the elements that make us. So the next time you look down at the “dirt” under your feet, think about the future plants, animals, and humans waiting to materialize. We are all interconnected.

Maybe the Earth really is our Mother.

Continue to Part II, Wind

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