University of Calgary

Cenovus Chair Chris Hugenholtz on Collecting Dust

Submitted by jwalla on Mon, 2012/03/26 - 8:53am.

The Earth’s surface is an incredibly dynamic environment that supports nearly all life and human activity. We often don’t appreciate how dynamic the Earth’s surface really is until we are faced with a significant event that disrupts our daily rhythm. Sometimes these events involve natural processes, other times they are exacerbated by human activity. The more we rely on and alter the Earth's surface resources, the more we must understand how the surface responds to human and natural forces.

Dr. Chris Hugenholtz, the Cenovus Research Chair at EVDS, is one of the youngest research chairs at the University of Calgary, an appointment he shares jointly with the University of Lethbridge.

As an Earth-surface scientist his research focuses on the understanding and prediction of environmental systems over a range of scales, from seconds to millennia. An emerging component of his research program is the development of innovative methods to mitigate environmental impacts of energy development in the northern Great Plains.

Hugenholtz has been published in the top Earth-science journals in the world and receives major funding in support of academic and applied research projects from NSERC, Alberta Innovates, and Cenovus Energy.

In the 1930s the North American "Dust Bowl" saw drought and poor land management result in extensive soil erosion and economic hardship. Since then farmers have introduced measures to cut soil loss and dust formation but it's been hard to track their success. Now researchers in Canada have found that blowing dust has occurred markedly less often since 1990, indicating that such attempts are working.

In the 1930s the North American "Dust Bowl" saw drought and poor land management result in extensive soil erosion and economic hardship. Since then farmers have introduced measures to cut soil loss and dust formation but it's been hard to track their success.

Now researchers in Canada have found that blowing dust has occurred markedly less often since 1990, indicating that such attempts are working.

"While climate does play a central role in entraining soil particles, it is mostly the actions of humans in the Canadian Prairies that expose or protect the soil," Chris Hugenholtz of the University of Lethbridge and University of Calgary told environmentalresearchweb. "Our findings demonstrate an example where human influence on the landscape can 'flick' the dust switch."

Individual farmers, as well as government agencies, have responded to soil erosion by developing programmes to promote soil conservation, says Hugenholtz. Such measures include reducing summerfallow (the practice of leaving fields unused in the growing season) and employing direct seeding to cut down on tillage and the associated disturbance of soil.

Hugenholtz, Thomas Fox and colleagues examined data for the start of the growing season, when most dust occurs, from seven sites in and near the Palliser Triangle.

This is the most arid region of the Canadian Prairies. They found that blowing dust frequency declined between 1961 and 2006, as did climatic wind erosion potential – a ratio of wind power to aridity. The frequency of blowing dust exhibited a significant drop-off from 1990 onwards.

"Initially, we were concerned this step change was not real, but some artefact of changes in data collection around 1990," said Hugenholtz.

"After an extensive search of metadata and many correspondences with scientists at Environment Canada, the federal agency that supplied the data used in our study, we confirmed that it was a real signal of a change in dust frequency."

The link between climate and dust also became stronger after 1990. The researchers reckon that before this date the role of climate was compounded by poor conservation management, leading to higher dust frequency and lower correlation.

But after 1990 the role of climate became more prevalent because the effects of soil conservation initiatives began manifesting across the region. "It is as though land use began cancelling out after 1990, yielding a better correlation with climate," said Hugenholtz.

For the full article on ERL, click here.

Hugenholtz's pedagogy emphasizes experiential training in Earth and environmental science, and includes the development of the first comprehensive Wind Science course in Canada. His long term goal is to increase the impact of his research on global and societally-relevant environmental issues through multi-disciplinary collaboration and outreach.

Click here to view Dr. Chris Hugenholtz's profile or view more faculty featured research.