Saturday, January 28th, 2023
Saturday, January 28th, 2023

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Storm’s unearthed “brown snow” a cause for concern?

The snow that came to northwest Ohio during the Christmas-week storm is covered with topsoil. (Photo by Steve Pollick)

The Great Christmas Weekend Storm of 2022, the one that buried Buffalo, brought an unwelcome surprise to my back 40 in Froggy Bottom here in northwest Ohio: Brown snow.

On a post-storm patrol of the bottom, just to check around for critter tracks, I immediately noticed a brownish tinge coating the snow. 

It was striking – windblown topsoil. I  realized that I was looking at some of the finest farmland in the world, displaced and lost to its purpose for lack of protective “green cover.” 

Three days of below-zero winds of 25 to 58 mph – howling, roaring, menacing and ultimately nerve-wracking – had driven about three inches of snow sideways, creating sheetlike formations that were grainy, gritty and highly compacted. Broad patches had turned brownish-white, and it appeared so everywhere I looked.

Later, when milder temperatures returned and the land thawed, that brown snow melted into splotches of thin, gooey mud. Eventually that goo disappeared as well, dissolved by rain and weathering. The problem is that critical topsoil had been displaced, unable to fulfill its intended purposes. You cannot plant crops, or forests, at the bottom of a river or lake, either.

At first glance, the soil-contaminated snow seemed a curiosity, as I initially realized that the relatively small amounts of soil mixed with the snow didn’t weigh much. But consider that a single brick in a skyscraper alone does not amount to much either. 

When you consider the vast Midwest farming region affected by the storm, thousands of square miles, one only can wonder how much topsoil was lost, and lost needlessly. Those losses repeat every time a strong winter wind blows over bare, unprotected soil, whether we see it or not.

A book that I once read by a respected soil scientist-conservationist included charts of topsoil loss worldwide. Some regions that have been exposed to wind and water erosion for centuries of agriculture are down to 25 years or less of topsoil remaining. 

And topsoil is essential to plant life, whether cornfields or forests. Life on Earth as we know it is completely dependent on topsoil, that upper few inches of the soil profile; it is where the action is for growing green. Lose it all and you get a moonscape. Plenty of places around the world now already are barren moonscapes.

Yes, new topsoil constantly is being built continuously, but it takes decades to centuries for the painstakingly slow geological processes in the subsoil and bedrock to build mere inches. We virtually are letting life blow away, or run off into ditches, creeks, and streams, at a blistering pace that far outstrips replenishment from below.

If there is a silver lining to the brown clouds, it is that increasing numbers of growers are planting green winter cover-crops known as “green manure.” Green manures include legumes such as vetch, clover, beans and peas; grasses such as annual ryegrass, oats, rapeseed, winter wheat and winter rye; and buckwheat. Leaving crop residue, such as chopped corn stubble, also is protective. Anything but bare, exposed soil.

The problem is that the number of growers participating in such soil conservation as green winter-cover planting remains way too low. Depending on which sources you check, only anywhere from 5 to 20 percent of land is protected by winter cover, despite an array of government farm-aid and cost-sharing programs. In short, most cropland is unprotected and vulnerable to what eventually will be devastating losses.

It is a dilemma, figuring out an answer. But one thing is certain: The brown snow is yet another warning and we ignore it at our peril. For without topsoil, there is no green. And no green — from man-planted food crops to wild-grown white oak acorns — spells trouble for everything else up the food web, from domestic and wild animals to humans.

We ignore the cautions that ride the brown snow at our peril.

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