Some of the Major Myths about Vegetation, Soil, and Climate

Some of the Major Myths about Vegetation, Soil, and Climate

Guest Opinion: Dr. Tim Ball.

People like Vladimir Koppen (1846 – 1940) knew more about climate and climate mechanisms than any member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and most people purporting to study or know about climate today. He demonstrated his understanding in the creation of a climate classification system that is still the basis of all attempts to produce something better. His grasp of the interplay and interactions between, temperature, precipitation, soils, and vegetation are unequalled.

You cannot understand climate, a generalist discipline, without understanding all of these. A good example of Koppen’s knowledge and skills are reflected in the recent misunderstandings and exploitation of the fires and drought in California. The critical point in California that Koppen identified is the effectiveness of precipitation and the ability to support various forms of vegetation. He distinguished between climate regions first by precipitation and the ability to support trees and then to support grasses. He differentiated between three categories – 70% in the summer, 70% in the winter, and evenly distributed throughout the year and how the vegetation will differ. Compare this with this quote from the 2007 IPCC Report.”

“For models to simulate accurately the seasonally varying pattern of precipitation, they must correctly simulate a number of processes (e.g., evapotranspiration, condensation, transport) that are difficult to evaluate at a global scale.”

Hubert Lamb documented the transition from the Koppen world to the failed computer model approach in his autobiography, “Through all the Changing Scenes of Life: A Meteorologists Tale.”

“…it was clear that the first and greatest need was to establish the facts of the past record of the natural climate in times before any side effects of human activities could well be important.”

Lamb knew what was going on because he cryptically writes,

“My immediate successor, Professor Tom Wigley, was chiefly interested in the prospects of world climates being changed as a result of human activities, primarily through the burning up of wood, coal, oil and gas reserves…” “After only a few years almost all the work on historical reconstruction of past climate and weather situations, which first made the Unit (CRU) well known, was abandoned.”

The obsession with computer models and temperature have taken climatology into a blind alley where the chances of understanding are eliminated. Neither weather nor climate forecasting has improved, yet billions are wasted on them not to mention billions more every year on research to improve them. Just one example, Environment Canada spent $2 million on forecasting 3, 6, and 12-month forecasts of temperature and precipitation. It was abandoned after the best results were less than 50% accurate. To add insult to injury, these failed science and forecasts are the basis for wasting trillions more. Witness the failed forecasts for hurricane Florence as just one more recent example. I identified these problems in a 2014 article titled, Government Weather and Climate Forecasts Are Failures.”

I was amused to see the article about the “Arab Spring” saying it wasn’t about climate change because I wrote this in an article in 2011.

“Everyone praised the “Arab Spring” riots as being about democracy, but the first major one in Egypt was about food prices.”


The only part of the story that was political was the exploitation of a failure of the food supply. This was due to local climate conditions and exacerbated (as some comments on the article observed) by the diversion of so much of the US corn crop to ethanol by the Obama regime. It pushed the price of foodstuffs essential to the poor, already rising because of local climate conditions, beyond their reach. Sadly, Trump continues the ethanol practice.

My interest in the impact of climate and climate change on the human condition led me to study similar situations throughout history. One aspect of this involves the rise and fall of civilizations. Another involves the triggers that push people to real, grassroots revolution, not political revolutions. These are revolutions when the people, who historically tolerate incredibly bad government, decide they can’t and won’t take anymore. In every case that I studied the catalyst was a failure of the food supply. People tolerate lousy government because they know, as graffiti in Pompei expressed 2000 years ago, if we get rid of this bunch of scoundrels, we just get another bunch of scoundrels.

There are many examples throughout history when the hostility between the people and the power elite are pushed into revolution. The trigger of the 1381 Peasants revolt was a Poll Tax but only because it made already expensive food because of poor weather conditions throughout most of the 14th century beyond their reach. The people of France always experienced the tension between aristocrat and peasant. Consecutive harvest failures in the two years before storming the Bastille in July 1789 pushed the price of bread alone to an estimated 88% of a peasant’s income.

At the other end of the spectrum, the surplus food allows surplus time, and people migrate to the cities and become detached from the food supply. They are unaware of the continuing changes on the land because of agriculture. The most common are increased rates of soil erosion, increasing salinization of the soil, and decreasing fertility as minerals are not replaced at an adequate rate. These are aggravated by climate change, as was the case in the Fertile Crescent or in the collapse of the Mayan civilization.

These things are happening today across the spectrum of agrarian societies. The failure to replace minerals is an insidious problem driven by the cost of the chemicals and the fear of using them promoted by environmentalists. I tell farmers that to replace minerals you have sent to the city in your crops and livestock is simply recycling.

There are two examples, of which I have personal knowledge. One involved public hearings I chaired on water resources in the Assiniboine River basin. We learned in calculations made by Professor Les Henry at the University of Saskatchewan that some 50% of the nitrogen removed from farmed soils had not been replaced. The other involved a request by two Canadian farmers for my opinion on the agricultural potential of farms they planned to buy in the former Soviet Union. One was in the region of Magnitogorsk east of the Ural Mountains; the other was near the port city of Vladivostok on the Pacific coast. I provided them with a complete climate analysis and recommended they ask for soil samples. Both reported the soil samples were terrible, devoid of or diminished in all important minerals. When I was told of the results, I pointed out that they received the best samples.

It is amazing and troubling how much soil suffers from erosion, increasing salinity and loss of minerals. Most often in developed nations, it is in semi-arid regions, like the Imperial Valley in California or the Murray and Darling basin in Australia. The latter region recognized the problem and are attempting better management strategies. All California has done is blame natural conditions for their political and leadership failures.

What appears to be good soil because of the apparent color and texture is deceiving. Years ago, I took students on a field trip west of Winnipeg. When we reached Portage la Prairie, we stopped for a break. A student said Dr. Ball you told us soils were very limited, but we just drove 50 km, and I saw tons of soil. I explained that volume does not mean the soil was fertile. You only need to lose a tiny portion of the soil for it to become infertile. It is like chewing gum without the flavor. Virtually all of that tiny portion is in the clay content, the smallest particles in the soil and the most easily eroded. You need to understand how granite, the original igneous rock, is broken down to clay, its smallest particles.

What is soil? How is it formed? Are all soils the same? Why do they differ? Why is it at risk? Why is it so important? Most people, especially urban dwellers, take it for granted or don’t even think about it at all. Most people assume that because there is soil where they live, or a considerable portion of the Earth’s land surface is covered with vegetation, it is growing on fertile soil. They don’t consider that the most soils are only capable of supporting a very specialized type of vegetation. The truth is about one-third of the Earth has no soil at all, and the remainder has only small pockets of agricultural quality soil. Most countries have limited amounts yet, they bury some of the best soils in the world under their urban areas.

A simple formula for soil formation is,

Soil = parent material, climate, organisms, relief, time.

It was this formula that started my quest for answers to the question of human’s role in the changing face of the Earth. I discovered that the ’organisms’ did not include humans and that led to my Honours Thesis title, Some Philosophical Considerations of Humans as a Source of Change.” All of the elements combine to form soil, but it is a slow process often taking thousands of years. It is why human history after we switched to sedentary agriculture, is directly tied to controlling and enhancing the food production capability of the soil.

The parent material is initially igneous rock formed when lava cools (Figure 1).


Figure 1

Immediately, the Geologic Cycle is set in motion (Figure 2.) The climate begins what is called the weathering process, the breakdown of the chemical and physical bonds that hold the individual minerals together into smaller and smaller pieces.


Figure 2

One of the most important physical processes is freeze/thaw. I witnessed this when trying to walk across the Tundra north of the tree-line). It is as if a giant with a massive hammer has applied it with great force (Figure 3). Close examination sees the other processes of organic and chemical weathering underway. The primary agent is lichen that is green, orange, or black. I learned on Arctic survival that the black lichen, when scraped off and boiled up in water, produces a broth loaded in minerals.


Figure 3

There is a specific sequence and name for each stage based on the size of each level known as the Wentworth Scale (Figure 4).


Figure 4

Because climate changes with latitude and altitude, the freeze/thaw actions cover a very large part of the land surface. As the rock breaks down, it is transported by gravity, ice, and water down to the oceans. This is where the relief portion of the formula is paramount. However, don’t assume that the same slope produces similar rates of movement. For example, slopes of 2° in Arctic regions can experience rapid and voluminous downslope flow known as solifluction (Figure 5).


Figure 5

Once soil starts to form it takes a long time to get to an ideal form as shown in Figure 6.


Figure 6.

Notice that now the parent material (bedrock) is being broken up beneath the surface. In this profile, you have the accumulation of the components of fertile soil, and it is mostly the smallest particles on the Wentworth Scale, Sand, Silt, and Clay. Unfortunately, these soils only form in small areas. They are not the soils found under the two greatest forest regions, the Boreal Forest and the Rainforest.

The boreal forest creates the illusion that they are on good quality soils and therefore could be adapted to agriculture. The only thing these soils grow well and naturally are the trees that cover them. You can see that in the uniformity of the trees over vast areas (Figure 7). The Hudson’s Bay Company had gardens at each post, and the only thing they grew successfully at boreal forest locations were turnips and potatoes.


Figure 7

Koppen identified that the tropical rainforests exist in a climate with very high year-round rainfall over 2000 mm, and consistently high temperatures between 20°C and 30°C. The soils experience almost a complete washing out of minerals leaving high concentrations of iron and aluminum. As a result, the soils are very red and infertile. They are generally called laterites


Lateritic Soils

In the rainforest, the trees are not deciduous with an annual growth and shedding of leaves. Nor are they evergreen, like the coniferous trees. Instead, they are continuous deciduous continually shedding and growing new leaves. Those leaves fall to the ground and immediately begin to decay in the hot, humid conditions. The rotting vegetation in the rainforest is one of the biggest sources of methane in the world, so why does the IPCC AR5 Report say about methane,

Despite significant progress since the AR4, large uncertainties remain in the present knowledge of the budget and its evolution over time.

This statement flies in the face of all the claims about methane and its threat as a greenhouse gas. It was the focus before CO2 became the target. We have known about the cycle that maintains the tropical rainforest on impoverished soils for a long time. Why then, is it such a surprise that in 2017 we see this headline?

“Scientists solve mystery of missing methane source in Amazon Rainforest.”

The trees immediately take up the minerals, and so maintain themselves; the soil is merely an anchor.

The real tragedy of clearing the trees in the Rainforest is that it was done to increase agricultural potential. The incentive was grants from the World Bank to countries that cleared the forest for agriculture to sustain the economy. The trouble is, clearing the trees exposes the soil, and two major changes occur. The heavy rains guarantee severe erosion, or the soil bakes literally iron hard in the tropical sun. Indigenous people understand all this and practice ‘slash and burn’ agriculture. They clear a small patch in the forest and burn the vegetation to add minerals to the soil. They grow crops for one or two years and then move to a new area.


Tropical rainforest

The arrogance of outsiders, fooled by believing fertile soils supported the dense vegetation, led to major agricultural development failures. By 1900 rubber trees taken from Brazil were flourishing in plantations in Malaya (now Malaysia). Before World War II industrial growth, particularly of motor transport, increased the demand for rubber. In 1928 Henry Ford built the town of Fordlandia in the center of the Brazilian rainforest. It was to be an industrial center around a rubber plantation. Ford wanted to control the production of every component of his newly massed produced cars.

During World War II Fordlandia became more important because of the Japanese invasion of Malaya. However, they misjudged three things. First, the locals could not accommodate to an industrialized society. Second, the soil exposed by clearing the forest quickly lost its fertility without falling leaves. Third, the pressure of demand led to the creation of a synthetic rubber.

The second failure to deal with tropical soils was known as the Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme. Groundnut is the English term for peanut. Most people don’t know that vegetable oils are the most important agricultural product in the world. During WW II, the British government realized they had to develop a reliable supply. Immediately after the War in 1946, a private company began looking for a site in Africa. They settled on 150,000 acres in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and cleared the land. The project failed within five years and was completely abandoned by 1951. Labor difficulties were again a problem, but the primary reason was the nature of the soil. These African Laterites baked rock hard, and they used machines that were part tank and part tractor to break it up. In addition, the soil also had quartz particles, and the combination of the iron and quartz ground a steel plow to nothing in a couple of days. Within 1 year, two-thirds of the imported tractors were out of service. It was a short-lived, expensive disaster. A fool and his money are soon parted.


Rubber plantation

The third was called the Jari project and was the idea of US billionaire Daniel Ludwig. He bought 1.6 million acres to produce a rapid growing tree to produce pulp for paper. He anticipated a growing demand for paper that slower growing boreal forest-trees couldn’t provide. He even had a processing plant built on a huge barge and towed from Japan. The problems of the soils combined with health issues among the local people forced him to quit the project in 1961 after just 10 years.

There is no place in the world where the adage that people can’t see the forest for the trees is more appropriate than in modern so-called climate science. We have not improved our knowledge or understanding since the work of people like Vladimir Koppen. The failure to improve weather or climate forecasting is proof that scientific understanding has not improved. Indeed, I would argue that we have regressed into the situation an English Geophysicist described when he wrote, “There are no students of earth, we all dig our specialized holes and sit in them.”

Superforest,Climate Change

via Watts Up With That?

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