Biochar is a charcoal that is used to improve land rather than as a fuel. Biochar is produced from biomass, usually through the process of pyrolysis. Due to the molecular structure and strength of the chemical bonds, the carbon in biochar is in a stable form and not readily mineralized to CO2 (as is the fate of most of the carbon in biomass). Because the carbon in biochar derives (via photosynthesis) from atmospheric CO2, biochar has the potential to be a net negative carbon technology/carbon dioxide removal option. Biochar is not a single homogeneous material. Its composition and properties (including longevity) differ according to feedstock (source biomass), pyrolysis (production) conditions, and its intended application. This variety and heterogeneity have so far eluded an agreed methodology for calculating biochar’s carbon abatement. Meta-analyses increasingly summarize the effects of biochar in pot and field trials. These results illuminate that biochar may have important agronomic benefits in poorer acidic tropical and subtropical soils, with one study indicating an average 25% yield increase across all trials. In temperate soils the impact is modest to trivial and the same study found no significant impact on crop yield arising from biochar amendment. There is much complexity in matching biochar to suitable soil-crop applications and this challenge has defied development of simple heuristics to enable implementation. Biochar has great potential as a carbon management technology and as a soil amendment. The lack of technically rigorous methodologies for measuring recalcitrant carbon limits development of the technology according to this specific purpose.
Holly Morgan, Saran Sohi, and Simon Shackley
Elisabeth N. Bui
Driving forces for natural soil salinity and alkalinity are climate, rock weathering, ion exchange, and mineral equilibria reactions that ultimately control the chemical composition of soil and water. The major weathering reactions that produce soluble ions are tabled. Where evapotranspiration is greater than precipitation, downward water movement is insufficient to leach solutes out of the soil profile and salts can precipitate. Microbes involved in organic matter mineralization and thus the carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur biogeochemical cycles are also implicated. Seasonal contrast and evaporative concentration during dry periods accelerate short-term oxidation-reduction reactions and local and regional accumulation of carbonate and sulfur minerals. The presence of salts and alkaline conditions, together with the occurrence of drought and seasonal waterlogging, creates some of the most extreme soil environments where only specially adapted organisms are able to survive. Sodic soils are alkaline, rich in sodium carbonates, with an exchange complex dominated by sodium ions. Such sodic soils, when low in other salts, exhibit dispersive behavior, and they are difficult to manage for cropping. Maintaining the productivity of sodic soils requires control of the flocculation-dispersion behavior of the soil. Poor land management can also lead to anthropogenically induced secondary salinity. New developments in physical chemistry are providing insights into ion exchange and how it controls flocculation-dispersion in soil. New water and solute transport models are enabling better options of remediation of saline and/or sodic soils.
Noa Kekuewa Lincoln and Peter Vitousek
Agriculture in Hawaiʻi was developed in response to the high spatial heterogeneity of climate and landscape of the archipelago, resulting in a broad range of agricultural strategies. Over time, highly intensive irrigated and rainfed systems emerged, supplemented by extensive use of more marginal lands that supported considerable populations. Due to the late colonization of the islands, the pathways of development are fairly well reconstructed in Hawaiʻi. The earliest agricultural developments took advantage of highly fertile areas with abundant freshwater, utilizing relatively simple techniques such as gardening and shifting cultivation. Over time, investments into land-based infrastructure led to the emergence of irrigated pondfield agriculture found elsewhere in Polynesia. This agricultural form was confined by climatic and geomorphological parameters, and typically occurred in wetter, older landscapes that had developed deep river valleys and alluvial plains. Once initiated, these wetland systems saw regular, continuous development and redevelopment. As populations expanded into areas unable to support irrigated agriculture, highly diverse rainfed agricultural systems emerged that were adapted to local environmental and climatic variables. Development of simple infrastructure over vast areas created intensive rainfed agricultural systems that were unique in Polynesia. Intensification of rainfed agriculture was confined to areas of naturally occurring soil fertility that typically occurred in drier and younger landscapes in the southern end of the archipelago. Both irrigated and rainfed agricultural areas applied supplementary agricultural strategies in surrounding areas such as agroforestry, home gardens, and built soils. Differences in yield, labor, surplus, and resilience of agricultural forms helped shape differentiated political economies, hierarchies, and motivations that played a key role in the development of sociopolitical complexity in the islands.