In a time when the U.S. president calls climate change science a “very expensive hoax,” it’s easy to feel pessimistic about where we’re headed.
Then again, folks like soil scientist Rich Farrell fly so far under the radar, few people know how much progress is being made—literally, in this case—on the ground.
“Despite what Donald Trump says, climate change is real,” said Farrell, a Rhode Island native. “I don’t think you can argue that people aren’t partially responsible, I think that’s pretty well established. But it doesn’t matter. It’s real. It’s here. And we need to find ways to slow it down.”
To appreciate Farrell’s work, you first have to know that he’s really good at online shopping.
Over the last decade or so, he’s quietly put together one of the world’s top labs for studying emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), a super powerful greenhouse gas. And he’s done it on a relative shoestring by scouring the planet for technology that he and his team have then adapted.
There’s the Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy gas analyzer — a Finnish device created to track hydrogen fluoride in aluminum smelting plants. Farrell found that baby when its maker mentioned in a paper it could also be used to analyze N2O.
It’s now “interfaced” with an automated gas flux chamber from Nebraska that greatly speeds up the process of obtaining readings.
An isotopic gas analyzer from California has been put to work to map how nitrogen grabbed from the air by plants is converted to an inorganic form and then into nitrous oxide. Soon to arrive is a sophisticated sensor from Denmark that will track nitrogen dissolved in groundwater and how it makes its way back into the atmosphere as N2O.
Rich Farrell 2017
“I’m a gadget kind of guy and every couple of months I go online and type in ‘nitrous oxide measurements’ or something like that to see what’s out there,” said Farrell, who holds a Ministry of Agriculture Strategic Research Chair.
“When something interesting pops up, I look into it and see if it’s something we could use and could get funding for.”
It’s not been hugely expensive. The lab has 20 automated sampling chambers, but they only run around $5,000 apiece, while the other devices range from just under $100,000 to $160,000.
“I think this is a world-class facility and there are not a lot of labs like this in the world,” said Farrell.
To truly appreciate it, you have to be an expert in measuring atmospheric gases, but the bottom line is simple: this technology, some of it able to track emissions in real time, allows researchers to understand how N2O is created (and how it can be reduced) on a level that wasn’t even imaginable until fairly recently.
On the macro level, the broad strokes have long been known: when nitrogen fertilizer is applied and it rains, there’s a huge spike in N2O emissions because of microbial denitrification. Big advances on the micro level have found the microbial genes that are responsible, and how to turn them on and off.
But in between is a big gap about precisely what happens and when. The technology Farrell has assembled allows researchers to “know when events start, when they peak, and when they come down.
“That means we can design experiments to make the events occur, and the soil microbiology people can collect samples at specific points, track all the activity in the microbes, and look at what’s causing these events to happen.”
That sort of granular data has very direct real-world applications, whether in evaluating new types of slow-release fertilizers or precisely measuring advanced management methods (such as so-called “split applications” of fertilizer).
Promoting more efficient fertilizer use is another of Farrell’s passions.
“We need to improve nitrogen use efficiency, but we have to keep in mind that we’re trying to balance agronomic with environmental benefits,” he said. “It’s easy to say ‘we’ve got to reduce emissions and it doesn’t matter what it costs’ when you’re not the one who has to pay for it.”
Typically, just one to two per cent of nitrogen fertilizer is lost as nitrous oxide, but the greenhouse gas is 300 times more powerful than CO2. It’s also an indicator of how much nitrogen is being lost in other forms (N2 gas and nitrates), so being able to precisely measure N2O emissions shows how “leaky” a cropping system is.
Pitching the economic benefits of reducing emissions is a lot better than scolding, said Farrell.
“We can say, ‘Do this and you’ll increase your agronomic output and profits, have a more sustainable business, and improve soil health. And oh yes, you’ll get greenhouse gas benefits as part of that.’”
He estimates emissions could be halved “without too much pain involved” but since they occur even in undisturbed native grasslands, they can’t be entirely eliminated. He also points out that energy production and cars are much larger greenhouse gas emitters, but everyone needs to do their part.
“I know some people argue that climate is like a pendulum: You get cold periods, warm ones, dry ones—and the pendulum swings back and forth over long periods of time. But push on a pendulum too hard, it goes off kilter and it doesn't come back.
“That’s what we’re approaching. If we push this too far, we’re not going to recover from it.”
Despite the skeptics, hard science does matter. And having a cutting-edge lab does, too.
“The lab helps to drive the direction that we’re going in by allowing us to do things that nobody else is doing,” said Farrell. “And when we do those things, we first go, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’ Then we ask, ‘What would we need to do this or that?’
“Then we go out and try to find the equipment that would allow us to do that. So, it’s a sort of symbiotic relationship.”
Farrell is finally getting around to naming the lab. The formal name—the Prairie Environmental Agricultural Research Laboratory — is prosaic, but the acronym is apt.
In the battle against climate change, this PEARL will be especially valuable.