Public Lab Research note

The work of the biosphere

by pdonovan | February 27, 2014 19:40 27 Feb 19:40 | #10073 | #10073

What I want to do

Develop several inexpensive, citizen science, open source technologies and techniques to measure change in biosphere work (e.g. photosynthesis, soil carbon accumulation, soil respiration, water flow, water quality).

My attempt and results

So far we've embarked on the Soil Carbon Challenge (, a friendly competition to measure soil carbon change on over 200 specific sites in North America, mainly on properties managed using Holistic Planned Grazing. See

Questions and next steps

Is it feasible to develop a free, citizen-usable web tool that would report time-averaged (e.g. 6 months to a year), cloud-free NDVI or EVI or fPAR or other multispectral algorithms from Landsat or other satellites? Google Earth Engine seems promising perhaps. (This is NOT Google Earth, but a separate project. Look it up.) A citizen-usable free web tool that would allow simple manipulations of dates and so on.

We are looking for interested partners and developers!

Why I'm interested

The flows of water and carbon through soils and atmosphere underlie most of the major problems our civilization faces. We need changes in these enormous flows of matter and energy both locally and globally. Changing them requires work---force over distance, sustained over time. Who or what can do or will do this work?

To me the answer is the biosphere--self motivated, autonomous organisms, mostly microbes and plants, but including all. Compared to our industrial power (about 16 terawatts), the biosphere does 8 or 10 times the work, estimated at 130 terawatts globally. This is often not perceived as work because it is quiet, spread out, fairly gradual, and is largely chemical work at ambient temperatures and pressures. Only biology can build soil, build soil aggregates, keep soil covered with plant residue. But as a society we don't know how to fly this thing. Most of our experience is about using, restraining, or trying to redirect our 16 terawatts. We need feedback to learn to manage the 130 terawatts well, and learn what's possible, both at the scale of individual land managers and society as whole. Some innovators are well on the way. We need ways to recognize real leadership based on results, not just talk. We need participatory, open-source ways to discover possibility. Much of the research in this space is anything but participatory, but tends toward closed consultancy, closed data systems, and prediction.


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