Breathing Earth

In an earlier musing, I wondered whether counting carbon was actually a good idea? It’s not that counting it might be bad, it’s the potential myopia if we focus on it too much.

To be clear, carbon is actually a good thing to count as part of a bigger picture. Today, I want to help you see that bigger picture, and share with you one cool technology we’re experimenting with that might help us better count it.

For all practical purposes, the only real input to planet Earth is energy from the sun. All of the matter on Earth just stays here, moves around, and changes form. A key process connecting the sun’s energy with matter is photosynthesis – where the sun’s energy is captured by plants and stored as organic chemical compounds that the rest of life knows as food. 

The matter in that food is all made up of carbon dioxide from the air, water from the ground, and smaller amounts of other elements from air and soil. What was once mostly just air and water first becomes a plant, and then becomes more of you or me as we extract its stored energy. In doing so, we turn the food back into carbon dioxide and water that goes back into the environment. Scientifically speaking, this is the cycle of life.  

Carbon in living ecosystems is like oxygen in our blood – a fundamental component of a breathing Earth. It’s only different from our own breathing in that carbon dioxide goes in and oxygen comes out instead of the other way around. Whenever you see a green plant, whether on a satellite image or in your yard, you know that nature is at work inhaling carbon from the air. 

When we count the stock of carbon in a tree, a blade of grass, or in soil, we know that carbon has been removed from the air. It’s not that we’ve locked the carbon away, but we’ve changed the balance between air and earth. This then is a primary way by which life cools the planet.

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However, it’s harder to count up that carbon than you might think. Theoretically, we could take the tree, grass, or soil, remove every atom that wasn’t carbon and put it on a scale. But, of course, that would destroy the very thing we are trying to value. 

Therefore, what we actually do is estimate properties like the size and density of things that we can see above ground, and take small samples of things from below ground then directly measure them. But the flip side of soil’s capacity to hold a lot of carbon, is that a large amount of carbon only makes a small difference in soil carbon concentration. We therefore end up having to wait for long time periods of time between soil stock measurements to get confidently detectable differences – usually five or more years.

But there is another way that can be MUCH more accurate and timely.

This different approach to counting carbon involves a science called the “eddy covariance method.” With eddy covariance, instead of counting carbon stocks, we count its flows. It’s like the difference between counting money going through a cash register and counting the coins and bills in a vault. In essence, by counting the instantaneous concentration of CO2 in air, and the tiny movements of air in every direction, we can add up the net flows of CO2 in the up and down direction. Whatever went down but didn’t come back up is still held in the ecosystem – i.e. carbon stored and at work in the cycles of life.

For the observant among you, you may have noticed the above image of me walking past one of these eddy covariance towers at the top of our Science page. I put it there long ago as a clue hidden in plain sight about my visions for counting carbon. For the curious among you, if you scroll down three rows from the top of that page, you’ll find a video explaining the method more. 

With this method, we are literally measuring the breathing of any ecosystem in real time. This technology is similar to the power meter on the side of your home, except its measuring carbon instead of electrons. The system can not only tell us how much net carbon was taken in (or released) by the ecosystem, but it tells us about the daily and seasonal dynamics of Earth’s breathing process. 

To give you a real-world example, the chart below comes from a pasture in southern Mississippi. You can see the daily pulses of carbon going in or coming out as the sun returns to the northern hemisphere in the springtime. The green shading below the center line is carbon being inhaled by day due to photosynthesis. The shading above the center line is carbon being exhaled by night as soil microbes feed on some of the carbon in the soil turning it back into CO2. See how the grass starts growing in mid-March, then after a week of cloudy days (very little shading below the center line), from early-April onwards, the grass starts inhaling carbon more and more each day. 

The problem with this method is that the current technology is quite expensive. It’s really best suited for scientific research, not everyday use. However, I’ve got some friends working on a way to make this method much cheaper. After some recently completed trials, they’ll be rolling this out on a few larger scale research projects this coming year, so I look forward to getting more data measuring the Earth’s breath in regenerative pastures soon.

In my dreams, I wish to have one of these all-day everyday carbon-counting devices on every farm, ranch and forest in America. Alongside it would also be other sensors counting birds and other measures of the diversity of life. This dream will take further evolution of technology, but I believe that this is where technology can and will take us in the not-too-distant future.

I’m still not sure whether it’s wise to price carbon or put a number on a label, but in my mind, it’s all moot until we can actually count it. Once we can, we will at least be able to better understand how well we are doing at regenerating a living, breathing Earth in the process of producing more and better food.

Russ Conser

Blue Nest Beef Co-Founder & CEO

Russ Conser

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