Scientists are concerned that soil in the Southwest is drying out and blowing away from climate change. Flagstaff-based ecologist Matt Bowker believes the key to protecting it lies in the biocrust, or top layer. He calls it "Earth's living skin", and he's growing it in a lab at Northern Arizona University.
Bowker says, "Just like we have a skin that helps keep all the important stuff inside, dry lands also have that and it's the biological crust. They just cover the very surface of the soil, and they keep all the fertility inside, so we have a good, healthy soil."
It takes the earth decades to produce this nutrient and organism-rich layer. But in a greehouse, it only takes a few months. It's like weaving tiny strings of sand and soil particles together for a sturdy, protective layer.
"They create a platform," Bowker says. "Once you get a little bit of stability, other organisms can come in and live on that surface."
NAU ecologist Anita Antoninka also works on the project. She hopes the cultivated biocrust can be used to restore soil damaged by a drying, warming climate.
"All of these projects - even though they're small plots - are geared towards making it scalable," Antoninka says. "So, we can take it from a plot scale and move it to a field scale or a landscape scale."
Some of the biocrust samples are growing in experimental plots in southern Utah. Others are being tested at varying elevations and moisture levels to find the best recipe for resilient Southwestern soil.