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Fixing the Footprint

The Marin Carbon Project could be on the way to saving the world


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When it comes to climate change and the impending disaster it spells for life on earth, good news is hard to come by. Many climate scientists say we've already reached the point of no return. But thanks to the work of a team of scientists working in West Marin, the end may not be so near.

For the past four years, the Marin Carbon Project has quietly been conducting research in the grasslands and pastures of Marin and Sonoma counties that, if borne out, may just save us all. In a nutshell, the group's research has shown that by making small changes in how grasslands and rangelands are managed, carbon can be removed from the atmosphere and stored in the soil. If these practices can be disseminated and practiced broadly, they could move the dial on climate change.

And it could be as easy as spreading cow manure on the ground.

First, a quick science lesson: there is a fixed amount of carbon on earth. This carbon moves between several large pools—the atmosphere (carbon dioxide), the earth (carbon, i.e. oil, coal), the ocean (carbonic acid) and in humans and all other living things (carbohydrates). While climate-change deniers disagree, it's widely accepted that things started to go south when humans began to burn soil-based carbon, releasing it into the atmosphere. The increase of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has given us climate change—and a very uncertain future.

Riding bikes, using solar power and drying clothes on the line all help reduce carbon emissions, but the troubling fact is that these necessary efforts will only slow the rate of climate change, they won't stop it. We need something else to reverse the earth-warming feedback loop already forcefully underway.

Enter the Marin Carbon Project. While peer-reviewed results are due to be published as soon as this summer, preliminary findings of the group's work are enormously encouraging.

It all began when researchers spread a half-inch layer of compost onto John Wick and Peggy Rathmann's Nicasio ranch to see what impact it might have on banking soil carbon. Previously, the group had sampled soils on 35 plots in Sonoma and Marin counties, and found that those with the greatest soil carbon had been covered with large amounts of manure. Manure can stoke photosynthesis in plants, pulling carbon out of the air and into the soil, but in large quantities it can pose health and water hazards. So the researchers settled on the use of compost for their research.

What they found amazed them.

After one year, the test plots showed a sequestering of at least one ton of carbon per hectare. A year later, without adding any additional compost, they found another ton of carbon in the soil. A year later, the same thing. And the next year, too.

"This is the most exciting news on earth right now," said project director Wick.


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