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The Biotic Climate and the Soil Sponge

By July 3, 2023April 30th, 2024No Comments

Heatwaves, drought, flooding, and wildfires don’t just “happen to us.”  Nor are they just “symptoms” of global warming. Life is a workforce that creates and regulates the Earth’s climate. Our relationship with this biological workforce has affected both local weather and the global climate.

Plants, microbes, and other workers know how to make clouds and rain; spread rain evenly across continents; keep us from freezing or burning as we spin through outer space, and create moist green landscapes where trees and grasses don’t easily burn. We disrupt and limit this biological work when we leave soils bare, use monocultures, break up soil structure with tillage, or rely on chemical fertilizers and biocides to manage life.  Through regenerative agricultural approaches, we can  let life return to its God-given work.

To do this, there are two big concepts that I find useful. The first is what I call “The Biotic Climate.”  The second is what I call “The Soil Sponge.” The more proficiency we gain with these two concepts, the better chance we have of rapidly re-regulating the climate, and creating regional oases (and eventually a whole planet) that can offer shelter from the storm, and abundant food and water for all of life. 

The Biotic Climate is an upward spiraling circle of life that creates more perfect conditions for life with each cycle.

Key Processes of the Biotic Climate

  1. Plants feed and energize the system through photosynthesis: Using CO2, water, minerals, and solar energy they feed the entire biological workforce above and below ground, on land and in the oceans.
  2. Plants and biology build a water-holding soil sponge out of rock particles and organic material.  (More details on this in The Soil Sponge).
  3. Life keeps soils intact during weather events: The biological glues and threads that make up the soil sponge and crusts keep mineral particles and landscapes intact even when wind blows or heavy rain falls.
  4. The soil sponge regulates underground temperatures: The air and water held in the spaces of the soil sponge act as an insulating buffer to keep soils cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
  5. Plant transpiration cools the air: As liquid water evaporates from leaves it cools the plants and the air around the plants, turning “sensible heat” into “latent heat” that won’t warm the air again until the water recondenses. The air above a green landscape is on average 5.3 degrees (C) cooler than bare soil.
  6. The “biotic pump” moves moist air: Low pressure zones form over cooler, greener landscapes and help to draw moist air inland from coasts. This means rain can spread out more evenly across a continent, and storms don’t linger as long and are less violent.
  7. Plants and microbes provide nuclei for mists, clouds and rain: Trees and other plants produce airborne particles which are needed to condense water vapor into mists and clouds which leads to a functioning water cycle. These particles include Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which are the wonderful compounds you smell in the air when walking through a forest or smelling flowers and plants. Airborne bacteria condense those cloud droplets into larger droplets that can fall as rain and snow. 
  8. Clouds and plants provide shade to cool the Earth’s surface by reflecting and absorbing solar radiation and heat during the day. (The Albedo Effect.)
  9. Rain clears the skies for nighttime cooling: As mists and hazes condense into clouds and rain each day, evening skies are clearer. The heat that has been absorbed during the day can radiate back out to space each night. 
  10. Plants condense dew: Temperature differences between night and day help water vapor in the air to condense on plants and other surfaces as dew, providing additional water for plant growth, and regulating humidity, even in areas with minimal rainfall. 
  11. The soil sponge grows deeper: With more moisture in the ground from rain and dew, more plants can stay green for longer, which provides the materials and workforce to grow a deeper soil sponge.
  12. Life regulates the atmosphere: Water, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and methane cycle through life and sky, growth and respiration, and form just the right greenhouse effect to keep us all from freezing or boiling as our planet circles the sun in outer space.

How have we gotten in the way of biological processes and created our current climate and weather?

The Anti-Biotic Climate is a downward spiral of loss of function. Each cycle compounds the collapse of living systems, as conditions for life’s biological workforce are degraded.

Key Processes of The Anti-Biotic Climate

  1. Tillage, bare soil, and deforestation break up the sponge structure of soils and compacts it so that it can no longer absorb adequate water. When rain is not absorbed, the water moves sideways, leading to flash flooding, followed by drought. Water tables drop, soils become dry.
  2. The soil sponge cannot be regenerated without adequate diverse plants to feed the underground workforce. 
  3. Pesticides kill off the biological workforce that could rebuild it.
  4. Lack of water means plants can’t photosynthesize as much, cannot regulate atmospheric CO2 and water vapor, or transpire water to cool the air directly. This leads to hotter local and global air temperatures. 
  5. Soil temperatures rise due to the lack of shade and cooling transpiration. Water evaporates more quickly from the hotter soil surface, soil moisture decreases further, and soil radiates dramatically more heat into the air. 
  6. High pressure heat domes form over these areas and block the movement of rain clouds, creating longer larger storms near coasts and more severe drought inland–intensifying desertification.
  7. Without plant cover and biology to hold soils together, soil erodes in wind and rain. Water and air pollution worsen
  8. With fewer grasslands and forests, there is less production of biological nuclei and it becomes harder for rain clouds to form, and harder to turn humid hazes into clouds and rain. Water vapor condenses onto the larger pollutant and dust particles in the air, creating less frequent but more intense rain events. 
  9. With persistent haze from pollutants, and no rain, skies aren’t clear at night, and the heat that has been stored during the day in soils and pavement cannot escape. 
  10. With a broken water cycle, annual plants have a shorter season of green growth, become drought stressed, and wildfires are more likely–worsening air pollution and heat-trapping hazes.
  11. The shorter the green growing season, the less food there is for the above ground and below ground workforce to regrow the soil sponge. 
  12. Repeat until the water, carbon and energy cycles are completely broken or until you realize there is another simpler way: to let life do its work.

The Soil Sponge

The soil sponge that I have referred to is how life keeps water on land, and it is foundational for all of the processes that happen in a landscape. Without a healthy soil sponge, life cannot survive or thrive on land.

The soil sponge is the biological arrangement of tiny broken-down rocks (sand, silt and clay) into a sponge-like matrix that has structural and functional integrity. It has two essential qualities that seem unlikely to exist in the same structure, but that’s what makes the soil sponge so amazing: 

  • It absorbs, infiltrates, and holds water in its pores. The pore spaces form when life (roots, fungi, earthworms, and all the underground inhabitants in a life-filled landscape) moves through this sturdy matrix that keeps these tunnels from collapsing. 
  • It is also water resistant, so it doesn’t fall apart. The mineral particles are held together by plant root hairs and fungal hyphae, and by water-resistant biological slimes and glues. 

You know you have a soil sponge forming if:

  • You can see aggregates (little clumps) of various sizes forming on roots, and within the soil itself. 
  • The soil looks more and more cake-like. Pore spaces and voids are forming and maintaining within the soil and it is easier to stick a shovel into the ground.
  • The soil soaks up rain more easily as infiltration rates increase.
  • The soil holds together when it is submerged in water with improved aggregate stability.
  • The soil doesn’t blow away with high wind due to improved structural integrity.
  • Plants are healthier, tastier, and less likely to spoil, both in the field and after harvest.

You can find more measures of soil sponge structure and function here:

What is the Potential Here?

If we can learn to see and understand these processes at work, change our land management to allow for biological work and soil sponge formation, and teach others what we are learning, we can take our place as co-workers in Creation.  We can cool and rehydrate whole regions quickly, prevent much of the flooding we see, drought proof our farms, and reduce fires. We can clean our air, rivers, lakes and oceans, and create abundant food, water, and health, for all life.

Hands holding dark, rich soil that is healthy and forming aggregates from regenerative treatment through "the biotic climate."

This article first appeared in the 9th Edition of Green Cover's Soil Health Resource Guide.

Also check out the 10th edition, our latest Soil Health Resource Guide, over 90 pages packed with scientific articles and fascinating stories from soil health experts, researchers, farmers, innovators, and more! All as our complimentary gift to you, a fellow soil health enthusiast!

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  • Didi Pershouse

    Didi Pershouse is the founder of the Land and Leadership Initiative, and the author of two books: The Ecology of Care: Medicine, Agriculture, Money, and the Quiet Power of Human and Microbial Communities and Understanding Soil Health and Watershed Function. She developed a practice and theoretical framework for systems-based ecological medicine, restoring health to people as well as the social and ecological systems around them.
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