Monday, January 8, 2007

Terra Preta

"Truly it has been said that there is nothing new under the sun, for knowledge is revealed and is submerged again, even as a nation rises and falls. Here is a system, tested throughout the ages, but lost again and again by ignorance or prejudice, in the same way that great nations have risen and fallen and been lost to history beneath the desert sands and in the ocean depths."-Paracelsus

We are like anyone who has ever lived: we live in the modern times. And in today’s modern view knowledge is acquired and accumulated in a linear progression. "We possess more knowledge than we’ve ever had, and will certainly possess even more in the years ahead." It seems a reasonable claim, but I have come to doubt it.

Do we really know more than we ever have? Researchers can wade through the Tuckasegee River and come out with one report after another, but looking back I see that our knowledge of that river is dwindling. What about those who built the fish weirs in the river, centuries ago, who could answer questions we would not even think to ask? What about those who performed ablutions to wash away their sins and could see a river that our eyes see only dimly, if at all? What about those who were alert to the tiny turns of weather and the blooming of plants alongside the river from year to year? What about those who sat by the ancient fire under the new moon and the hunter and spoke of the uktena, swimming beneath the waters of the Tuckasegee?

I wonder what stories of the river are told anymore. Legends so well known, they could be shared with a glance and a nod? Is folklore like some extinct bird, that used to be alive, but now is just some dusty curiosity in the corner of a research lab? Stories fade, the knowledge is lost, and measurements captured by every scientific instrument available won’t be enough to bring it back.

I consider the river because I was reminded today of lost knowledge and the secrets of the past. Kelpie Wilson has posted a truthout article on the top green tech ideas of 2006. It is an informative discussion of LED lightbulbs, solar photovoltaics, wind kites and hybrid vehicles. But the last item in the article stopped me in my tracks:
"Terra preta (the black earth) is new to Western science, but it is an old technology from the Amazon that disappeared when the native populations were wiped out by European diseases after Columbus."

From our choice spot in the worldwide greenhouse of the 21st century, we can say that those Amazonian farmers employed an elegantly effective process to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and put it into long-term storage in the earth:
"The technology of black earth is simple: Instead of slashing and burning the rainforest to make way for agriculture, long lost Amazonian civilizations burned forest slash in smoldering piles to make charcoal, and then buried the charcoal in the soil. This produces an astounding increase in soil fertility. The charcoal itself adds nutrients to soil, but it also acts as a sponge to absorb and retain any manures or other added fertilizers for very long periods of time. Some of the terra preta soils created more than 500 years ago are still highly fertile today."

Somehow, those farmers KNEW. In the midst of tropical soils, poorly suited to agriculture, they created oases of fertility. Was it the result of careful experimentation or the result of fortunate mishaps? Or was it just as likely that their practices emerged from prayer and ritual? However it happened, terra preta made possible the networks of farms, villages and walled cities of THEIR modern times. Today we can measure their success by cation exchange capacity, humic acid fraction and other scores. But we can’t say we have recovered the knowledge of the black earth farmers from 2000 years ago.

Tomorrow, when I look at the Tuckasegee, I’ll think about the past and forgotten stories of the river. And in case any faint echoes still vibrate across these hills, I’ll pray that I listen carefully.

1 comment:

Erich J. Knight said...

Man has been controlling the carbon cycle , and there for the weather, since the invention of agriculture, all be it was as unintentional, as our current airliner contrails are in affecting global dimming. This unintentional warm stability in climate , has over 10,000 years, allowed us to develop to the point that now we know what we did and that now we are over doing it.

The prehistoric and historic records gives a logical thrust for soil carbon sequestration.
I wonder what the soil biome carbon concentration was REALLY like before the cutting and charcoaling of the virgin east coast forest, my guess is that now we see a severely diminished community, and that only very recent Ag practices like no-till have started helped to rebuild it. It makes implementing Terra Preta soil technology like an act of penitence, returning misplaced carbon.

Carbon Negative Bio fuels and Fertility Too

This new soil technology speaks to so many different interests and disciplines that it has not been embraced fully by any. I'm sure you will see both the potential of this system and the convergence needed for it's implementation.

The integrated energy strategy offered by Charcoal based Terra Preta Soil technology may
provide the only path to sustain our agricultural and fossil fueled power
structure without climate degradation, other than nuclear power.

I feel we should push for this Terra Preta Soils CO2 sequestration strategy as not only a global warming remedy for the first world, but to solve fertilization and transport issues for the third world. This information needs to be shared with all the state agricultural programs.

The economics look good, and truly great if we had CO2 cap & trade in place:

These are processes where you can have your Bio-fuels, Carbon sequestration and fertility too.

'Terra Preta' soils I feel has great possibilities to revolutionize sustainable agriculture into a major CO2 sequestration strategy.
I thought, I first read about these soils in " Botany of Desire " or "Guns,Germs,&Steel" but I could not find reference to them. I finely found the reference in "1491", but I did not realize their potential .

I have heard that National Geographic is preparing a big Terra Preta (TP) article.

Nature article: Putting the carbon backBlack is the new green:

Here's the Cornell page for an over view:

This Earth Science Forum thread on these soils contains further links, and has been viewed by 13,000 folks. ( I post everything I find on Amazon Dark Soils, ADS here):

The Georgia Inst. of Technology page:

There is an ecology going on in these soils that is not completely understood, and if replicated and applied at scale would have multiple benefits for farmers and environmentalist.

Terra Preta creates a terrestrial carbon reef at a microscopic level. These nanoscale structures provide safe haven to the microbes and fungus that facilitate fertile soil creation, while sequestering carbon for many hundred if not thousands of years. The combination of these two forms of sequestration would also increase the growth rate and natural sequestration effort of growing plants.

Here is a great article that high lights this pyrolysis process , ( ) which could use existing infrastructure to provide Charcoal sustainable Agriculture , Syn-Fuels, and a variation of this process would also work as well for H2 , Charcoal-Fertilizer, while sequestering CO2 from Coal fired plants to build soils at large scales , be sure to read the "See an initial analysis NEW" link of this technology to clean up Coal fired power plants.

Soil erosion, energy scarcity, excess greenhouse gas all answered through regenerative carbon management

This is the first I've seen of a pyrolysis process like Dr. Danny Day's on the market:

Lehmann at Cornell points out, "systems such as Day's are the only way to make a fuel that is actually carbon negative". and that " a strategy combining biochar with biofuels could ultimately offset 9.5 billion tons of carbon per year-an amount equal to the total current fossil fuel emissions! "

The upcoming International Agrichar Initiative (IAI) conference to be held at Terrigal, NSW, Australia in 2007. ( )
If pre-Columbian Indians could produce these soils up to 6 feet deep over 20% of the Amazon basin it seems that our energy and agricultural industries could also product them at scale.

Harnessing the work of this vast number of microbes and fungi changes the whole equation of EROEI for food and Bio fuels. I see this as the only sustainable agricultural strategy if we no longer have cheap fossil fuels for fertilizer.

We need this super community of wee beasties to work in concert with us by populating them into their proper Soil horizon Carbon Condos.

I feel Terra Preta soil technology is the greatest of Ironies.
That is: an invention of pre-Columbian American culture, destroyed by western disease, may well be the savior of industrial western society.


Erich J. Knight