GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Three women hop into their truck to begin their workday, and almost immediately begin dishing the dirt.
No, really — actual dirt. Spodosols, Histosols, Ultisols, you name it, they’ve dug them up, labeled them and ferried them back to their lab at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, where they’re being analyzed for associate professor Sabine Grunwald as part of the state’s largest-ever soil-carbon study.
When completed next year, the study could help Florida venture into the carbon-credit market, a way for governments, farmers and landowners to earn money while helping reduce greenhouse gases by storing carbon in soils.
Grunwald’s study, a USDA-funded, three-year core project of the North American Carbon Program, is nothing if not audacious: The soil and water science expert has charged her team with collecting a total of 1,000 soil samples from just about every conceivable type of land in Florida.
Their goal is to create a comprehensive soil carbon inventory for the state, and be able to predict—based on factors such as land use, hydrology and topography—how much carbon can be stored in the ground.
While it’s already established that Florida has more soil carbon than any other state, officials here haven’t yet taken advantage of that by jumping into carbon-credit markets.
Carbon-credit markets seek to mitigate global warming by allowing the market to assign a dollar value to measurable reductions of harmful greenhouse gases and allowing “credits” for such reductions to be bought and sold. In some cases, farm land would need to be left untilled for several seasons to allow carbon to be stored.
Those markets are far more active in Europe than the U.S., though many expect such markets here to become more viable and lucrative in the not-too-distant future.
But what landowners and those who make decisions about land use need to know before taking the plunge is how much carbon is stored in different types of soil.
“What we really need first is accurate data,” Grunwald said. “And what we researchers can contribute is knowledge about how carbon is sequestered.”
A study Grunwald and her team conducted from 2005 until 2008 looked at soil carbon levels in the Santa Fe River watershed and allowed researchers to become adept at using soil spectroscopy, a cost-effective method that allows them to quickly make soil property inferences.
During that study, she said, it occurred to researchers that expanding their scope from the eight-county watershed to a statewide project only made sense.
“We just said, ‘let’s do it for the whole state,’” she said.
Bags full of soil samples and paper grocery sacks full of “litter”— things like dried grass and decomposed leaves the women scrape off the top of the earth right near where they auger the dirt samples, are starting to be analyzed.
Grunwald said she hopes the soil and litter analyses will be complete by late fall.
The project’s conclusion marks the end of months of grueling work by field team leader Aja Stoppe and helpers Lisa Stanley and Elena Azuaje, who have traversed thousands of miles across Florida, through swamp, pine forests, farm land, pastures and muck.
Their stories of weird looks from strangers and being covered in grime from ear to elbow are entertaining — like the time Stoppe stepped out onto what she thought was solid ground only to plunge into waist-deep water.
Driving back to Gainesville after a day spent collecting samples in the Osceola National Forest, they rehash exploits and marvel at the kindness of strangers.
And there, Stoppe points out a critical difference in having an all-female crew.
“We always send thank you cards to the people who helped us,” she said.
Other members of the team included graduate students Gustavo Vasques and Jongsung Kim, postdoctoral researchers Brent Myers and Deoyani Sarkhot, and UF faculty members Nick Comerford, Willie Harris and Greg Bruland.
In this photo released from the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, soil and water science graduate student Elena Azuaje uses an auger to collect soil samples in the Osceola National Forest — Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2009. Azuaje was part of a team collecting soil samples for researchers to analyze as part of the state’s largest-ever soil-carbon study. When completed next year, the study could help Floridians venture into the carbon-credit market, a way for governments, farmers and landowners to earn money while helping reduce harmful greenhouse gases by storing carbon in soils. (AP photo/University of Florida/IFAS/Tyler Jones)