earth engineering

Looking into the new and blooming fields of ecological engineering and geoengineering. I'm interested in writing and sharing what is happening in the field and how we can use its advances to better already existing natural systems.

Take mom’s advice about high albedo crops


Remember in the summer when your mom used to tell you not to run on the black top barefoot? Or when she advised that you should wear a white t-shirt in 90 degree weather even though your favorite shirt was black?

Mom wasn’t just saying this because of folklore or because moms sometimes say things that don’t have any logic. She was using her knowledge of the albedo effect to protect your little temperature sensitive body.

What albedo means is the percentage of light (or incandescent electromagnetic radiation, which ever you prefer) reflected by a surface, usually a celestial body. But this knowledge of light reflection off different surfaces helps us in a lot of different situations.

We know that black absorbs more light and white reflects more light. That’s why the pads of our feet might get burned walking barefoot on a blacktop, no concrete and why it’s more comfortable to wear a white shirt rather than your fav black shirt in the heat.

Researchers at the University of Bristol are taking this age old mom logic and applying it to the field of geoengineering.

In the team’s 2009 study, Assessing the Benefits of Crop Albedo Bio-Engineering, they found that if farmers were able to switch their crops to higher albedo varieties then the planet could be globally cooled by one percent.

I know…that sounds really small and like a lot of work for farmers but the study states that this crop switch-a-roo could have a greater effect locally and regionally.

The high albedo crops would consist of different varieties of maize and wheat along with barley and millet.


Also, high albedo crops have additional benefits. These plants tend to have greater water efficiency and reduced leaf heating so overall, they could increase agricultural productivity.

Even though this study was written in 2009, large global geoengineering projects are something to consider. I picked this one in particular to write about because it seems more reasonable than mining moon dust or ocean sulfur enhancement.

With rapidly changing temperatures, farmers and crop growers may have to think back to what mom said and change up their system.


Where I got my info from:


The Give and Take Of Wetlands



(Part of the wetlands at Shaw Nature Reserve, where I spent my training.)


When I think of ecological engineering my mind automatically goes to a period of time when I was on my high school’s Envirothon team (extremely dorky, I know). As Envirothon members we explored various components of Missouri wildlife and nature and later tested our knowledge up against other teams in a competition.

My area of expertise was forestry but my best friend focused on aquatics. Since we were friends, we went to all of each others training sessions together so we wouldn’t have to be left alone with other strange Envirothon kids who were overly interested in Missouri’s aquatic and tree situation (thinking back on it now, we were just as weird and strange).


(Here’s proof of our dorkiness- part of my team during a wildlife training session hence the snake)

But by going to all of the training sessions for forestry and aquatics, I ended up learned a lot about wetland mitigation and restoration.

My friend who did the aquatics has long forgotten all of the random extensive knowledge he knew about indicator species in ponds and lakes and I barely can recall any facts about Missouri trees and my identification skills are on the down slope.

But! The information I learned about wetlands has really stuck with me for some unexplained reason and I still really enjoy looking into wetland projects and reading up on it.

Essentially what wetland mitigation is defined as is the creation or enhancement of wetlands to offset impacts of other systems.

Wetlands are recognized as an important factor in keeping ecosystems in tact. The EPA refers to wetlands as an “essential tool” to ensure the “health of America’s watershed.”

Wetlands have many more benefits than just being a nice fixture in nature. They fight the battle against flooding by absorbing overflow, store and filter storm water by absorbing excess nutrients, sediment, and other pollutants. They also replenish groundwater, and they harbor migrating birds along with being a home for a diverse number of species including some endangered species.

So wetland mitigation and restoration has become something that is very important for different communities and areas around the US, like Missouri where 87% of wetlands have been destroyed since the European settlers came.

In the United States a 50% loss of wetlands has occurred and currently 60,000 acres are lost annually.

The EPA actually has a policy called the No Net Loss policy that helps with wetland preservation. The policy’s purpose is to balance the amount of wetlands lost due to economic development by keeping the total acreage of wetlands in the US consistent with no increase of decrease.

For example, the Shaw Nature Reserve, where I originally learned about wetlands, two wetland ponds were built in 2005 to mitigate the damage done to a preexisting wetland when building a new sewer line.

The information on wetlands that I learned and my interest in wetlands in general have stuck with me since my days of environment because I really like the idea of this give and take cycle that wetland mitigation provides.

A lot of times we see natural areas destroyed when construction comes through, but with wetland reservation and mitigation there is a need to replace what was taken and there’s something to be said for that.

I wish that every time we took from an ecosystem would could make up our net loss but since wetlands are considered the most biologically diverse ecosystem and since they provide functions outside of just a pretty habitat, the No Net Loss policy is a good place to start.


Most of my information from this post came from The Shaw Nature Reserve’s website and the EPA’s website.

Cab driving local farmers could use drones…?

Last weekend I was riding in a cab with a driver that owned her own local farm.

This may seem strange, but I was in Wisconsin where the cab drivers are nothing of the likes of the sassy, non-talkative Chicago cab drivers.

She picked me up from downtown Madison to take me back to the Greyhound station about 20 minutes away and we got into a good flow of conversation. She asked my why I was visiting and I proceeded to tell her I was visiting a geology exhibit and I was writing a story about it and that I was a science journalism major.

This prompted her question of, “so what do you think about global warming?” I was apprehensive at first because I wasn’t sure if intelligent (maybe not-so-intelligent) discourse was appropriate to have with your cab driver…but I told her that I thought more needed to be done and it’s getting to the point where I’m slightly scared of what was to come if we keep up with our current actions. I was relieved when she agreed with me.

She asked what I thought needed to be done to which I started to explain to her that I was currently reading and writing about cutting down on consumption of ruminant meats such as cattle and sheep. This is when she told me that she owned her own farm with her husband on their small property.

“It’s not much and it’s really easy to take care of,” she told me. But she felt like she was doing her part by eating locally raised meat and produce. I applauded her and told her that I wished their was more like minded people like her around, then I got out of the cab.

On my Greyhound ride back to the city I started wondering why it was so “easy”‘ for her to own her own farm. I didn’t get the chance to ask her what she did or what type of technology she used or if it was all the work done by loving hands. So, I googled it. (note: I didn’t google her, I just googled things local farmers use to make their processes easier.)

I found an article about drones being used on local farms. Whenever I hear the word “drone” I automatically roll my eyes because I picture some future-esque transformer but the farm drone is actually pretty cool and just looks like more of a remote control helicopter than something Shia LaBeouf would be battling. The device has been nicknamed “Phantom” though…so still keeping it a little sci-fi.


(Image courtesy of Jessica Bourque —

What the “Phantom” drone does is count crops, locate tile lines and provide thermal images of livestock. Which in turn saves the local farmers a lot of money.

The drones cost 3,500 dollars each which might be little pricey for a local farmer who drives cabs on the side…but it’s definitely something that could revolutionize local farming practices.

The article notes that, “in about 20 minutes, a farmer can scout about 650 acres of farmland, a task that would take several hours by foot and cost $400 per hour by plane.”

The technology is not fully developed; there are still some privacy and trespassing issues with the Phantom that only allow it to go 400 feet in the air.

But finding this little gadget satisfied my curiosity on how local farmers make their life easier. I’m not sure if my cab driver would ever use something like this on her farm but it’s something that might be more widely used in years to come.

In the meantime, I’m sure she’ll stick to looking at her crops from the ground view and tracking her livestock with her naked eye.

Here’s a link to the original article-

And here’s a video from the drone’s eye view (it’s accompanied by a pretty magical soundtrack)-



What makes a Living Machine live?


In the interest of finding new research in the field of ecological engineering, I came across a project that is called Living Machine.

I admit, the the name itself is startling and made me think more of a robot that will somehow “accidentally” destroy a city rather than help out an ecosystem. In searching the internet for information about Living Machine, what I really wanted to find was an article someone had written about it. But what I found first was a press release from 2000 on the Oberlin College News Service’s website.

In brief, what Living Machine does is purify waste water by mimicking what nature has been doing for as long as the earth has been around. Living Machine honestly just looks like a row of plants that you would see in a greenhouse or maybe your grandmother’s garden. But what it does is far beyond anything Grandma’s green thumb can handle.

Water travels through plant beds in a tank-based system and is treated by “engineered ecologies” like microbes, plants, snails, and insects. The system is designed to treat up to 2,000 gallons of water daily and all of the water is reused on the site. That sounds pretty impressive to me.

John Todd, specialist in ecological design, designed Living Machine and has designed many more systems just like it called “Eco-Machines” (which by name is a little more inviting).

When I googled, “Eco-Machine” I was able to find out a lot more about what Todd does along with a couple articles written about his work. Eco-Machines have actually won awards and are there are dozens of them in 11 different countries.

I was pleased to find out that Eco-Machine is actually a bigger production than what I first imagined. What I first thought was just a small project in a greenhouse is actually something that’s stretched across 5 continents and helping a lot of people and companies get clean water in a completely natural way.