Washington State Magazine

Fall 2011 Earth, Wind and Food

Fall 2011

Earth, Wind - and Food

In This Issue...


A Fine Thin Skin—wind, water, volcanoes, and ice :: Different as they seem, the soils of Eastern and Western Washington have one thing in common. They come—either by water, wind, or ice—generally from elsewhere. And what takes eons to form can be covered over or erode away in a geologic heartbeat. by Tim Steury

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Map: Washington soils }

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Story: How you contribute to soil health }

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Story: When soil goes sour }

Above & Beyond :: In the spring of 1792, George Vancouver praised “the delightful serenity of the weather.” A few years later, William Clark complained of a dour winter that was “cloudy, dark and disagreeable.” How right they both were. Weather patterns determined by mountains and ocean grant the Pacific Northwest a temperate climate that also has a dark and unpredictable side. by Hannelore Sudermann

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Links: Links to weather news, AgWeatherNet, and other resources for following Pacific Northwest weather }

Billions Served :: Seven billion people will soon become nine billion before the global population levels off. Can so many people be fed from a finite Earth? Yes, they can, say WSU researchers. But the solutions will necessarily be many. by Eric Sorensen


{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Gallery: Images of Antarctica: WSU geochemist Jeff Vervoort and interior design assistant professor Kathleen Ryan discuss their exhibit of photos from the frozen continent. }

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Puzzle: Creature crossings: A lesson in teaching the nature of science }

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Video: Valley View Fires of 2008 and Firewise Community Produced by the Spokane County Conservation District }

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Map: Historic wildfires of the Pacific Northwest }

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Story: How to protect your home from wildfires }

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Video: Small forest management }


{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Project: Coug-o-lantern Stencils for carving the WSU Cougar head logo on pumpkins }

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Illustrations: Plans and sketches for new WSU football facilities and Martin Stadium }

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Recipes: Pumpkin recipes }

{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Interactive photo: Tour the Admiralty Head Lighthouse }


{ WEB EXCLUSIVE–Gallery: Cougar logo through the years }

New media

:: The Docks by Bill Sharpsteen ’80

:: L.A. Rendezvous by Charles Argersinger

:: A Chinaman’s Chance by Alex Kuo

Cover photo: “Small Forest in the Palouse Hills” by Chip Phillips

First Words

Westward Ho!

by | © Washington State University

There was a time, not so long ago, in our great Northwest when boundaries were not a great concern. When the first non-Indian settlers reached the Palouse and the Columbia Plateau, they could look to the distant horizon and see nothing but blue sky and virgin prairie and shrub-steppe, potential farmland as far as they could imagine. And as they learned to know the land, they reveled in what the college scientists told them, of seemingly endless topsoil, of windblown loess 200 feet deep. But even as that soil washed and blew away at an unsettling rate, they also learned to ignore the worries of those same scientists and wiped the dirt from their foreheads with studied denial.

Nevertheless, a providential climate, fertile soil, and, in the drier regions, massive irrigation projects helped create the agricultural paradise the pioneers had dreamed of as they loaded their wagons, turned their backs on an exhausted East, and pointed their oxen West.

But that golden period of conquest and opportunity was soon expired. The endless land filled up, an agricultural empire finally bounded by ocean and desert and international border. And now, slowly, we’re starting to understand that the geographical sorts are not the only boundaries that hem us in.

In a recent paper in Nature, Johan Rockström and colleagues urge that a “safe operating space for humanity” be defined by scientifically determined, quantifiable planetary boundaries. Our home is not as boundless as we’d hoped, and feeding a burgeoning population is unfortunately not entirely consistent with the health of the planet itself. Just as our westward expansion was finally bounded by the Pacific Ocean, our earthly continuation will depend on recognizing the boundaries of climate change, of biodiversity loss, of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, of ozone depletion, and other factors.

In an even more recent policy paper in Science, WSU soil scientist John Reganold and colleagues argue that if we are to meet these considerable challenges, we must start thinking bigger. Although incremental approaches have established a robust modern agriculture, meeting the demands of both planetary health and a growing population will require a transformative approach that “builds on an understanding of agriculture as a complex socioecological whole.”

Anticipating that transformative challenge, the WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture’s Climate Friendly Farming project has explored our impending dilemmas from the perspective of an intriguing observation: “While all economic sectors emit carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, only agriculture and forestry also absorb it.”

Over the last several years, the project has identified promising management strategies and technologies that could mitigate agriculture’s contributions to the greenhouse gases that are changing our global climate. Among them are reducing the emissions, restoring carbon to soil, and replacing fossil-fuel derived products with biomass-derived products.

Through their aspiration and research, these scientists are leading the way in molding the mission of the land grant university toward the husbandry of a planet that is at once bounded and bountiful.

Tim Steury, Editor

Categories: Agriculture, Earth sciences | Tags: Soil, Farmers

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