“Carbon Detectives Are Tracking Gases in Colorado”

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The Story

“Carbon Detectives Are Tracking Gases in Colorado”
by Susan Moran
The New York Times, December 1, 2008

The Pitch

[Moran notes: I sent the Science Times editor this query in mid-July 2008 and received an affirmative reply within a couple weeks. I share this query because it’s an example of how the story focus and angle can change once you start reporting further. In my case I contacted the editor after a visit to a national research lab in California and suggested to her that a more compelling and timely story would be a little different from my original pitch, this time focusing on how advancements in CO2 measuring instruments could help inform future U.S. climate policy. Luckily, she agreed. (I was squeamish about suggesting a different story angle as I hadn’t worked with her before and didn’t want to appear flaky.) The experience made me appreciate further just how tough it can be to nail a story in the pitch, and how despite doing a lot of reporting before pitching the story so much more detail and direction comes up when you do in-person reporting. And that it’s worth following your reporter’s nose when it smells a new track worth following. For example, I didn’t come to the lede character in my story until after I pitched the article.]

Agricultural carbon sequestration: Is the science ready for the markets?

A small minority of farmers like Curtis Sayles, who grows winter wheat, corn, millet, and sunflower on 5,000 acres in eastern Colorado, know that not plowing their fields before planting helps improve the health of their soil and crops, and can even fatten their bank accounts. Nowadays, the farmers are told that practicing what is called no-tillage farming also helps combat climate change.

They don’t know if that claim is true–and they’re hardly alone. But that’s not their concern. They’re getting paid through the Chicago Climate Exchange and other carbon- offset programs to farm without plowing their fields, a practice that prevents soil carbon, in the form of plant roots, from being re-released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

The article I propose for Science Times would examine the evolving science of soil carbon sequestration. Scientists are debating among themselves how effective carbon sequestration programs are in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the long term.
Because soil quality and content varies across different terrains, at different depths, and under different climate and weather conditions, scientists do not fully understand how much carbon some soil areas actually store, and how long it will stay there. Since the lifetime of a carbon dioxide molecule in the atmosphere is on the order of a century, the latter question is a particularly thorny one.

More precise and extensive measuring systems will lead to clearer policies when Congress eventually passes climate legislation, which will likely include a mandatory cap-and-trade system equipped with agricultural offsets. A key roadblock for scientists
has been a shortage of land-based instruments that measure carbon release and uptake by crops and soils. I’d like to focus on a significant study that is currently being conducted by scientists at the University of Iowa, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other institutions, on corn and soybean cropland in West Branch, Iowa.

Land-based tower instruments have detected a surprisingly large amount of CO2 uptake by crops from the atmosphere. This suggests that carbon sequestration efforts can have a measurable impact even at a regional level. The Iowa project offers the most precise reading of carbon flux on land, not just in the atmosphere. Some of the leading soil ecologists and atmospheric scientists are in or near Boulder, including Pieter Tans at NOAA and Keith Paustian and Stephen Ogle at Colorado State University. I have visited some of them already in their labs.

Thank you for considering this story idea.

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