Critical Zone and Soil Ecology meetings

June 9, 2017 – 4:06 pm

I went to two different conferences this week, the Critical Zone Observatory (CZO) all-hands meeting and the Soil Ecology Society (SES) Meeting. It was an amazing and jam-packed week of science, I learned a ton, and it was fun to compare and contrast these two communities. I presented a poster on some of our work on Chihuahuan Desert soil and microbial processes in a poster at the CZO meeting and I presented a talk synthesizing some of the work I’ve done on soil pore water in Arctic systems at SES. CZO is more geo and SES is more bio, but one clear conclusion from this week is that people in both communities would be fascinated by what scientists in the other are up to.

I was excited to attend the CZO meeting because I have long been involved in the LTER network and have been aware of CZO but had not seen a lot of CZO results up close. The community is impressively developed, with around 200 scientists attending the meeting and something like 500 researchers across all career levels in the whole network. It’s becoming an essential part of our nation’s science infrastructure. There was discussion of topics such as major findings from the CZO sites, the future of the CZO program, and its relationship to other environmental observing networks.

There was some debate about exactly what the boundaries of the “critical zone” are, though there was also quite a bit of consensus that it’s roughly something like canopy to bedrock. Peter Groffman (who by the way is a fantastic scientist and nice guy who without fail stops by my talks and posters to give me smart feedback about whatever I’m working on) made a great observation in his talk that the environmental and Earth sciences are now in the era of “network science.” I would have to agree with this assessment what with LTER, NEON, CZO, and many other environmental research networks continuing to grow and mature, not to mention distributed experiments like NutNet, WaRM, DIRT, and BIODESERT.

Some of the talks that were highlights to me were Susan Brantley’s plenary, Steve Holbrook’s talk on geophysical measurements, Daniella Rempe’s talk on “rock moisture” at the Eel River, and Emma Aronson’s soil microbial work at various CZO sites. Brantley’s talk emphasized the value of the CZO endeavor in informing crucial questions of interest to our civilization such as the environmental impacts of fracking. She also summarized a bunch of the coolest findings from across the different CZO sites. Holbrook’s geophysics team’s ability to “see” belowground features such as porosity and depth of various parts of the critical zone was amazing. One technique they used apparently involves whacking the ground with a sledgehammer to follow the seismic waves it creates. I think we can all agree we want to be the sledgehammer guy or gal. Rempe’s talk was cool because it showed how we are beginning to crack the mystery of how water interacts with fractured bedrock. I was always told that’s a black box until the water gets to the river. Aronson combined all of my favorite soil measurement techniques (nutrients, enzymes, etc.) with microbial community analyses and was really bringing the biology to the geology and hydrology heavy teams at the CZO.

The CZO network is set apart in a couple ways from LTER, NEON and other networks. It differs from the LTER objective of repeated long-term observation (in part due to the fact that many processes of interest to critcal zone scientists operate over deeper time periods), but similar to LTER the science is hypothesis-driven with questions tailored to specific sites. This sets both LTER and CZO apart from NEON, which is more of a large-scale observation tool with a huge strength being its consistency in methods across sites, a feat neither LTER nor CZO attempt at nearly the same degree. There were some good discussions at the meeting of how to integrate these different networks and I noticed that there is a fair amount of interest both from the community and from NSF to do this when warranted to answer ambitious questions. Overall, the CZO network has been really successful in bringing together lots of researchers to understand soil, ecosystem, and geologic processes. I give them an A+.

Wow, I had quite a bit to say about that meeting. Thanks for continuing to read! I will now forge ahead with my thoughts on the Soil Ecology Society Meeting.

I arrived at the Soil Ecology Society meeting on Wednesday morning, just in time to catch the end of the “Ecology of Soil Health Summit.” The current president of the Soil Ecology Society, Matt Wallenstein spearheaded this effort to bring together agricultural and industry folks with us soil ecologists. It looked to me like a big success and there is no doubt that all sides have a ton to learn from each other. I also really enjoyed getting to talk to Matt about his growing startup company Growcentia, which is now turning a profit selling their signature product “Mammoth P” primarily to Cannabis growers (though strawberry and tomato growers too they assured us!). It’s an amazing accomplishment for an ecologist like Matt to turn into a successful entrepreneur and the perfect demonstration of how decades of basic research in a field like soil ecology can all of a sudden be harnessed to drive our nation’s economy forward.

After the conclusion of the Soil Health Summit that morning, the “soil nerds” as we were called by one presenter (who to be fair is an insect nerd herself, my good friend, and now CNN personality Jane Zelikova) were unleashed. These are pretty much “my people” when it comes to science so it was a great pleasure to see all of their latest greatest findings.

Some talks that were highlights for me were Stuart Grandy’s talk on his new approaches to studying the nitrogen cycle, my postdoc advisor Mike Weintraub’s work building on our studies of soil pore water, and Kirsten Hofmockel’s talk on comparing cropping techniques in Iowa with respect to soil sustainability. Stuart is pushing our understanding of the nitrogen cycle backwards from the production of inorganic N in soils to better understand the process of depolymerization of the organic compounds that yield amino acids and other N-containing monomers. His approach includes an awesome sounding setup for doing 15N amino acid pool dilutions. Mike presented some data from deciduous forests in the Stranahan Aroboretum in Toledo testing to see they saw the same seasonal trends in soil pore water sugars that we had seen in the Arctic. He didn’t, but hey that’s research, especially in soils.

Finally, Kirsten’s talk had some shocking images showing for example corn being grown directly on a riverbank. This may not sound shocking but there were audible gasps from biogeochemists in the audience who understand the importance of denitrification-stimulating riparian buffer zones as a crucial stopgap to the so-called “nitrogen cascade” of environmental impacts caused by our overuse of N. Anyway, it was a great talk designed to show us how we can take advantage of soil ecology to inform cropping practices that maintain higher microbial biomass, soil fertility, and ultimately make farming more sustainable. I also always enjoy seeing the soil science being done at PNNL where Kirsten is the Lead Scientist for Integrative Research. Comparing their cutting edge analytical capabilities vs. average soil scientists like me is IMAX vs. VHS. (I note though many movies can still be appreciated without IMAX!)

All in all a great soil adventure. I look forward to heading home, seeing the kids, and jumping head first back into understanding tundra and desert soils next week.

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