Soil Is Not a Dirty Word

Researcher finds present, past, and future in the soil

Colorado State University soil and crop sciences Associate Professor Gene Kelly wants you to know that soil is not a dirty word. As a critical factor in the structure and functioning of ecosystems, soil patterns help determine where certain kinds of plants and wildlife can live. Soils also help determine what areas are safe or unsafe to build homes or other structures.

Even so, soil, or dirt, gets "no respect." You can get your face rubbed in it, your name dragged through it, or you can be older than it. None of these are positive things.

Some scientists disrespect soils, too. And yet, there has been no way to quantitatively account for the effect of different types of soil across broad regions. Instead, scientists often assign a fixed value for soils in calculating regional or global estimates.

Gene Kelly grew tired of seeing the soil treated like, well . . . dirt. So, he and his colleagues in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences devised methods for identifying and quantifying soil. In doing so, these researchers have become spokespersons for the soil in the global climate change arena.

"Soil is a vital resource here in Colorado and across the globe, and it bothered me that it was being overlooked by other scientists," says Kelly. "As the science of making regional and global projections became more quantitative, the soil science community needed to reconsider the way we studied the soils within natural and agricultural ecosystems."

Integrating chemistry, physics, biology, geology, ecology, and anthropology, Colorado State's soils team focuses on how soils affect and at the same time reflect the environment. Kelly says that other researchers need to understand this dynamic process to comprehend soil's functioning in the ecosystem.

For example, the amount of carbon stored in the soil has emerged as a key factor in making local and regional climate change projections. To determine how and to what degree soil stores carbon in Colorado's various ecosystems, Kelly and his students studied carbon storage, CO 2 fluxes, water storage, and water fluxes from alpine to grassland environments. The patterns they uncovered soon will be used in global climate change models.

Kelly's lab also creates digital maps showing regional landscape patterns of soil processes and properties. These maps are in high demand throughout Colorado and the Great Plains. For example, real estate developers want maps of soil textures in areas on which they might want to build; land-use planners need maps of soil variations to create management strategies for different resources; and the agricultural industry benefits from knowing how soil properties have changed over time as a result of different management schemes.

In addition to studying contemporary soil processes, Kelly probes the soil to unearth prehistoric information as well. He is currently a lead principal investigator along with Indy Burke (Forest Service) and Jack Morgan (USDA-ARS) for Colorado State University's Shortgrass Steppe Long Term Ecological Research Project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation with additional support from the Colorado State University Agricultural Experiment Station.

Kelly's role in the project is to examine properties of soils to determine what the vegetative communities have looked like in eastern Colorado's Great Plains over the past 100,000 years. When a plant grows, it leaves a "fingerprint" of organic materials and minerals in the soil. Using this fingerprint to identify the presence of different plants, Kelly can reconstruct climatic and environmental conditions that existed in the past.

"Based on these biological proxies, our initial results suggest warmer and drier conditions were present 6,000 years ago," he says.

With current concerns about worldwide climate changes, Kelly hopes that understanding the past will help in figuring out what the future might hold. You might even say that the key to understanding the future is buried in the soil.