New Focus on Monitoring Soil

There is nothing new about monitoring soil in arid conditions. South Africa and Israel have been doing it for decades. However climate change has increased its urgency as the world comes to terms with pressure on the food chain. Denizon decided to explore trends at the macro first world level and the micro third world one.

In America, the Coordinated National Soil Moisture Network is going ahead with plans to create a database of federal and state monitoring networks and numerical modelling techniques, with an eye on soil-moisture database integration. This is a component of the National Drought Resilience Partnership that slots into Barrack Obama’s Climate Action Plan

This far-reaching program reaches into every corner of American life to address the twin scourges of droughts and inundation, and the agency director has called it ‘probably  … one of the most innovative interagency tools on the planet’. The pilot project involving remote moisture sensing and satellite observation targets Oklahoma, North Texas and surrounding areas.

Africa has similar needs but lacks America’s financial muscle. Princeton University ecohydrologist Kelly Caylor is bridging the gap in Kenya and Zambia by using cell phone technology to transmit ecodata collected by low-cost ‘pulsepods’.

He deploys the pods about the size of smoke alarms to measure plants and their environment.aa Aspects include soil moisture to estimate how much water they are using, and sunlight to approximate the rate of photosynthesis. Each pod holds seven to eight sensors, can operate on or above the ground, and transmits the data via sms.

While the system is working well at academic level, there is more to do before the information is useful to subsistence rural farmers living from hand to mouth. The raw data stream requires interpretation and the analysis must come through trusted channels most likely to be the government and tribal chiefs. Kelly Caylor cites the example of a sick child. The temperature reading has no use until a trusted source interprets it.

He has a vision of climate-smart agriculture where tradition gives way to global warming. He involves local farmers in his research by enrolling them when he places pods, and asking them to sms weekly weather reports to him that he correlates with the sensor data. As trust builds, he hopes to help them choose more climate-friendly crops and learn how to reallocate labour as seasons change.

Photo courtesy of Scientific American

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