Keeping Your Soil Resilient in a Changing Climate

By Carrie Brausieck, Resource Planner

Our climate is changing. The University of Washington Climate Impact Group (CIG) has done extensive research and modeling on climate patterns in the Pacific Northwest. Based on this research, they have compiled predictions for what our climate will look like in the coming decades. Changes in our climate patterns are predicted to include:

  • Warmer winters with low snow packs and early peak stream flows    
  • Warmer, drier summers with summer stream flows decreasing
  • Drier years will be intensified

As our climate trends move towards these new patterns we may begin to experience the effects of these new trends on our landscapes. The possible effects of these different climate patterns are:

  • Longer growing seasons with increased demand on low summer water resources
  • Possible yield reductions due to heat and/or drought stress
  • Crops viable to the region may change
  • Possible yield reduction in forage crops
  • Lower growth rates and milk production in livestock

While these predictions may seem alarming, there is some good news. By looking to the soil, we can find ways to mitigate the impacts of these trends on our landscapes. Through building health and resiliency into our soils, we can better adapt to a changing climate. 

What is Resilient Soil?

What is healthy, resilient soil and what is its function? Healthy soil is a living substance teaming with a wide diversity of life, from arthropods to fungi to protozoa to small mammals. Soil is the living interface between the geology and the biology of the earth. It serves as a transformative layer converting stone into the biodiversity that the planet sustains.

Some basic characteristics of healthy soil are:

  • A soft crumbly structure with clumps and pore spaces (like a sponge)
  • Reactive to the environment, warms quickly in spring
  • Maintains the capacity to soak up large amounts of water (heavy rains) with little run-off
  • Has the capacity to store water during drought periods
  • Resists erosion and nutrient loss
  • Produces high yields of healthy plant life without large amounts of chemical inputs

Soils, as described above, could go a long way in maintaining our crops or landscapes through extreme weather events and would adapt better to changes in long-term climate patterns.

Building Healthy, Resilient Soil

There are many ways to nurture health and resiliency in our soils. One of the best models is to manage our soils in the same way that nature manages soils. Undisturbed soils tend to be more resilient to changes in climate than soils that have been cultivated or managed in yards and recreational areas.

As you observe the environment, you begin to see that nature manages soils in the following ways:

  • Soil is always covered - bare soil is a rarity
  • Polycultures – many species function together
  • Reliance on soil organisms to till the soil
  • A closed loop of organic input, breakdown, and re-uptake of nutrients (a cycle of fertility)

Armed with the above observations, we can begin to devise management strategies for our own soils that mimic nature to build health and resiliency back into degraded soils, or to maintain the integrity of soils that are already healthy.

The following are ways we can manage our soils for increased soil tilth and productivity:

  • Keep soils covered – use multi-species cover crops, dense crop plantings with companion crops, mulch, and residue
  • Consider diversity – diversity among plant communities builds symbiotic relationships, creates more complex exchanges of nutrients and natural pest controls, and increases diversity of life within the soil (i.e. the whole system functions better)
  • No-till or low-till practices – this can be implemented in large scale cropping systems, or in small scale backyard garden beds
  • Build organic matter (cycle of fertility) – allow leaves or lawn clippings to decompose into the soil, add compost or manure, roll cover crops, and/or leave residue to decompose into the soil

Help for Farms, Pastures, Lawns, and Landscapes

Soil health techniques can be practiced at any scale. Whether you are a large-scale crop producer or you’re trying to maintain a backyard lawn, you can incorporate all of the above techniques into your land- use activities.

Lawns can be diversified with many different grass species as well as legumes and forbs. Cropping systems can be diversified through crop rotations, companion plantings, and cover cropping. There are so many different ways to put soil health techniques into practice.

Focusing on the health and resiliency of our soils will not only create a healthier system overall but will prepare all of our landscapes for changing patterns in the future. For help with keeping your soil healthy, or to request a soil test, please contact Carrie Brausieck at 425-377-7014.