Rajatkantib via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Rajatkantib via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

‘Booster Shots’ of Healthy Dirt Can Bring Barren Landscapes Back to Life

Rajatkantib via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Rajatkantib via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Soil may be one of our planet's most underrated heroes. Without it, we miss out on verdant lawns and shady forests and have nowhere to grow fruit, vegetables, nuts, or grains. And without it, our food chain could fall apart. And this is not some theoretical, dystopian future; soil degradation is already a real problem for farmers all over the globe. So you can imagine that researchers were pleased to learn that a tiny transplant of healthy soil might be enough to invigorate depleted land. They published their findings in the journal Nature Plants.

Earlier studies had already shown that infusing barren land with healthy soil can help restore its fertility, but large-scale soil transplants are expensive, and scientists weren’t totally sure how it worked. So four Dutch researchers decided to try a large-scale experiment to look at very specific aspects of the process.

They found a depleted field that had, for many years, been farmland, and marked off large plots (five to 12 acres). Next, they dug away the topsoil in the test areas, peeling back that layer to reveal the vulnerable earth underneath. Upon some plots, they then spread a very thin (just one centimeter) layer of healthy soil from either nearby grasslands or shrublands. They left other plots untouched to act as controls. Then they stepped back and let nature do its thing for six years.

They returned to find quite dramatic results. Plots that had gotten the micro-dose of new soil had made a tremendous recovery.

Untreated vs. treated plots of land. Image credit: E.R.J. Wubs

The areas inoculated with grassland soil had produced lots of grassland plants, and the same was true for the heathlands. This might seem obvious—of course grassland soil would include the seeds of grassland plants—but further tests in a greenhouse showed that even when a plot was strewn with both kinds of seeds, the soil itself determined which seeds succeeded.

This study opens up a lot of possibilities for soil treatment. Once again, that may not sound like much, but try imagining your life without food. 

Root biologist Harsh Bais of the University of Delaware, Newark, was not affiliated with the study, but he’s excited about the results. "This is a really cool and remarkable study," he told Science. "Dirt matters."

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An Eco-Friendly Startup Is Converting Banana Peels Into Fabric for Clothes

A new startup has found a unique way to tackle pollution while simultaneously supporting sustainable fashion. Circular Systems, a “clean-tech new materials company,” is transforming banana byproducts, pineapple leaves, sugarcane bark, and flax and hemp stalk into natural fabrics, according to Fast Company.

These five crops alone meet more than twice the global demand for fibers, and the conversion process provides farmers with an additional revenue stream, according to the company’s website. Fashion brands like H&M and Levi’s are already in talks with Circular Systems to incorporate some of these sustainable fibers into their clothes.

Additionally, Circular Systems recycles used clothing to make new fibers, and another technology called Orbital spins those textile scraps and crop byproducts together to create a durable type of yarn.

People eat about 100 billion bananas per year globally, resulting in 270 million tons of discarded peels. (Americans alone consume 3.2 billion pounds of bananas annually.) Although peels are biodegradable, they emit methane—a greenhouse gas—during decomposition. Crop burning, on the other hand, is even worse because it causes significant air pollution.

As Fast Company points out, using leaves and bark to create clothing may seem pretty groundbreaking, but 97 percent of the fibers used in clothes in 1960 were natural. Today, that figure is only 35 percent.

However, Circular Systems has joined a growing number of fashion brands and textile companies that are seeking out sustainable alternatives. Gucci has started incorporating a biodegradable material into some of its sunglasses, Bolt Threads invented a material made from mushroom filaments, and pineapple “leather” has been around for a couple of years now.

[h/t Fast Company]

Undersea Internet Cables Could Be Key to the Future of Earthquake Detection

Considering that 70 percent of the planet is covered by oceans, we don't have all that many underwater earthquake sensors. Though there's plenty of seismic activity that happens out in the middle of the ocean, most detection equipment is located on land, with the exception of a few offshore sensor projects in Japan, the U.S., and Canada.

To get better earthquake data for tremors and quakes that happen far from existing sensors, a group of scientists in the UK, Italy, and Malta suggest turning to the internet. As Science News reports, the fiber-optic cables already laid down to carry communication between continents could be repurposed as seismic sensors with the help of lasers.

The new study, detailed in a recent issue of Science, proposes beaming a laser into one end of the optical fiber, then measuring how that light changes. When the cable is disturbed by seismic shaking, the light will change.

This method, which the researchers tested during earthquakes in Italy, New Zealand, Japan, and Mexico, would allow scientists to use data from multiple undersea cables to both detect and measure earthquake activity, including pinpointing the epicenter and estimating the magnitude. They were able to sense quakes in New Zealand and Japan from a land-based fiber-optic cable in England, and measure an earthquake in the Malta Sea from an undersea cable running between Malta and Sicily that was located more than 50 miles away from the epicenter.

A map of the world's undersea cable connections with a diagram of how lasers can measure their movement
Marra et al., Science (2018)

Seismic sensors installed on the sea floor are expensive, but they can save lives: During the deadly Japanese earthquake in 2011, the country's extensive early-warning system, including underwater sensors, was able to alert people in Tokyo of the quake 90 seconds before the shaking started.

Using existing cable links that run across the ocean floor would allow scientists to collect data on earthquakes that start in the middle of the ocean that are too weak to register on land-based seismic sensors. The fact that hundreds of thousands of miles of these cables already crisscross the globe makes this method far, far cheaper to implement than installing brand-new seismic sensors at the bottom of the ocean, giving scientists potential access to data on earthquake activity throughout the world, rather than only from the select places that already have offshore sensors installed.

The researchers haven't yet studied how the laser method works on the long fiber-optic cables that run between continents, so it's not ready for the big leagues yet. But eventually, it could help bolster tsunami detection, monitor earthquakes in remote areas like the Arctic, and more.

[h/t Science News]


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