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Soil Erosion Rises Again!

Submitted by jdp on Fri, 03/18/2016 - 08:13 am

In the 1930s, the Dust Bowl and the legacy of massive post-Civil War cut-out-and-get-out logging and, particularly in the south, of what amounts to shifting cultivation brought a soil erosion crisis to the attention of the USA and the world. In the 1980s, a realization that problematic erosion persists despite great improvements in soil conservation and a heightened concerned with nonpoint source pollution from agriculture brought renewed attention to erosion, this time focused particularly on off-site impacts. On-site impacts of soil erosion are the environmental degradation and lost productivity due to soil loss, while off-site impacts are related to pollution and costs associated with where the soil ends up. Now, we are at it again, with another wave of attention to soil erosion.  

Eroded farmland in Alabama, 1930s (WPA photo by Arthur Rothstein).

How to Get Scientists to Ignore You

Submitted by jdp on Thu, 02/25/2016 - 08:53 am

OK, so I tried to read Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro’s 2014 book, Ecology, Soils, and the Left: An Ecosocial Approach. As a geomorphologist who studies soil erosion (among other things), and as an environmentalist/conservationist interested in the human dimensions of erosion, it seemed a worthwhile piece of work (and probably is).  Years ago I was greatly influenced by Piers Blaikie’s 1985 The Political Economy of Soil Erosion—it even inspired me to develop a (widely ignored and little used, but I tried) method for modeling/estimating soil erosion in less developed countries where technocentric North American and European approaches were unlikely to be applicable.

Blaikie critiqued—often strongly—geomorphologists, soil scientists, and engineers. But he did so without insults and putdowns of scientists and science.

Not so Engel-Di Mauro. A few samples:

Biophysical scientists have proven historically to be largely subservient to the ruling regime of the day (and sometimes emphatically aligned with the ruling classes).

The Balance of Nature, and the Nature of Balance

Submitted by jdp on Wed, 12/02/2015 - 08:58 am

If Mother Nature has plans, those plans are flexible. She keeps her options open, allows for more than one route to a given location, and we cannot assume that the same circumstances will always produce the same outcome. To digress for a moment: accepting this need not challenge religious or philosophical beliefs about a creator. Nothing in the bible, for instance, specifies exactly how the Judeo-Christian God goes about his/her business, or specifies any single pathways or mechanisms. As a protestant minister I knew well used to say: “Religion is concerned with the ‘why’ questions, and science addresses the ‘how.’”

Indeed. 35 years in the geoscience research business has shown me that that there is no single “right” or “natural” way for the world to be. Any human notions of singular, immanent norms or optima are tied to needs, goals, or perceptions, not scientific laws or relationships. And—again—there is nothing wrong with having such goals, desires, or expectations for nature, any more than there is anything wrong with a farm or a garden. The key is to realize that there is not much point in expecting Earth surface systems to evolve toward and maintain a single specific condition, any more than we would expect a garden to maintain itself without some guidance and intervention.

Talking Climate

Submitted by jdp on Mon, 11/30/2015 - 08:33 am

In 1997, world leaders met in Kyoto, Japan to discuss how to confront, combat, and adapt to climate change. Eighteen increasingly warmer (on average) years later, a new set of climate talks start in Paris (France, not Kentucky) today (30 November), and continue for 12 days.

Some U.S. politicians have already courageously declared that the U.S. will do nothing, no matter how compelling the evidence, how severe the problems, or what the rest of the world thinks. As we get a new round of public commentary during and after the Paris talks, two recent studies—one journalistic and one academic—are worth considering.

Texas Riparian Areas

Submitted by jdp on Wed, 11/18/2015 - 09:40 am

Texas A&M University Press has recently published Texas Riparian Areas. According to TAMU Press's blurb: 

Riparian areas—transitional zones between the aquatic environments of streams, rivers and lakes and the terrestrial environments on and alongside their banks—are special places. They provide almost 200,000 miles of connections through which the waters of Texas flow. Keeping the water flowing, in as natural a way as possible, is key to the careful and wise management of the state’s water resources.

Connecting the Dot Factors

Submitted by jdp on Mon, 10/26/2015 - 07:26 am

The standard conceptual model for pedology, soil geomorphology, and soil geography is often called the “clorpt” model, for the way it was portrayed in Hans Jenny’s famous 1941 book The Factors of Soil Formation:

S = f(cl, o, r, p, t) . . . .

This equation states that soil types or soil properties (S) are a function of climate (cl), biotic effects (o for organisms), topography (r for relief), parent material (p), and t for time, conceived as the age of the surface the soils are formed on, or the time period the soil has been developing under a given broad set of environmental controls. This factorial approach, considering soils as a function of the combined, interacting influences of environmental factors such as geology, climate, and biota, was originated by V.V. Dokuchaev in Russia in the 1880s, popularized in English by C.F. Marbut in the 1920s and 1930s, and developed by Jenny into the familiar clorpt form.

Quo Vadis Physical Geography?

Submitted by jdp on Tue, 06/23/2015 - 08:32 am

The Canadian Association of Geographers recently held a special session on Changing Priorities in Physical Geography (I did not attend or participate; I was made aware of it by a Canadian colleague). The session description is given here. It got me to thinking about a piece I wrote more than a decade ago in response to a similar mandate, called Laws, Contingencies, and Irreversible Divergence in Physical Geography. I thought I would revisit what I published back in 2004 to see how it holds up. The paper focused on physical geography as science and scholarship, as opposed to the institutional politics of physical geography within geography as a whole, and relative to other disciplines. However, I did predict that physical geography—as geomorphology, climatology, biogeography, soil geography, and geospatial approaches to Earth & environmental sciences—would grow and thrive. However, I also expressed doubt that this work would continue to be called physical geography, and the extent to which it would be conducted under the institutional auspices of geography.

Climate and History: Geography Matters

Submitted by jdp on Tue, 06/02/2015 - 08:26 am


Just finished John Brooke’s Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey (Cambridge University Press, 2014). If nothing else, the book is a remarkable achievement with respect to the breadth and depth of literature and ideas brought to bear, including history, geography, geology, anthropology, economics, climatology, ecology, and archaeology. Brooke also makes a compelling case for a significant role for environmental change in general, and climate change in particular, in influencing human affairs and history (and, of course, vice-versa).

The Perfect Floods of Texas

Submitted by jdp on Mon, 05/25/2015 - 10:45 am


As I write, there is flooding in central Texas, and more to come. The focus is rivers and creeks in the San Antonio and Guadalupe River systems in the Balcones Escarpment area along the San Antonio-Austin Corridor, with effects beginning to felt downstream.

Destroyed trees along banks of the Blanco River, Wimberly, TX, after the flood of 24 May, 2015 (photo by Jay Janner, Associated Press).

Froude for Thought

Submitted by jdp on Fri, 05/01/2015 - 12:37 pm

The Froude number is a hydraulic parameter often used to relate aquatic habitats and biotopes to flow intensity. Independently of some trenchant critiques (see, e.g., Clifford et al. 2006), there seems to be no inherent hydrological, geomorphological, or ecological reason that the Froude number (Fr) should be the best indicator of habitat or ecological niches.

Fr is a dimensionless number that describes flow regimes in open channels and is unquestionably useful in many aspects of hydrology, geomorphology, and engineering. It is the ratio of inertial and gravitational forces:

Fr = V/(g d)0.5

Fr < 1 indicates subcritical or tranquil, and Fr > 1 supercritical or rapid flow. But variations in Fr within the subcritical range (where it typically falls) can be significantly related to, e.g., geomorphic units and habitats within channels.

Shawnee Run, Kentucky

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