Colby’s Bro, Matt Gets an Agronomist Job

Matt (right) and myself (left) watching a St. Louis Cardinals game at the 2010 SWCS annual meeting

My older brother Matt recently got his first job in his new career field – agronomy. He will be a research associate with Schillinger Genetics, a non-GMO soybean genetics company. Matt was a contractor for several years, but eventually decided that it wasn’t for him. He ended up in the Iowa State University Agronomy Department. He is in his last semester there and will graduate with a BS in Agronomy in May.

You can read about what the genetics company does on the link above. Matt said they breed non-GMO soybeans for a variety of uses, but he mentioned specific uses including fish food for aquaculture, tofu, etc.

Matt’s always had a green thumb. I’m sure he’ll have success in his new career. Good luck in your new job Matt!


SoilWeb – A Soil Survey App

SoilWeb is a smart phone app developed by the California Soil Resource Lab for Android and iPhone devices. In a nutshell, it reads your GPS location and brings up a description of the soil series (or soil mapping unit) on which your standing. The first screen shows what a soil pedon (3-dimensional view of a soil and its horizons) would look like, with a detailed profile description and range of characteristics to follow. It is available for free from the Android Marketplace and the App Store.

Here are some screen shots of the app from the Android Market:


G'zOne Commando

I recently made the jump from a “dumb phone” to a “smart phone” when I purchased a G’zOne Commando Android phone (the model I would recommend to all soil and wetland scientists out there since it is shock and water proof, and cold temperature resistant). As a soil scientist by trade, this was one of the first apps I downloaded.

The application works great for a quick reference in the field. However, it doesn’t show a soils map of other soil series that may be nearby. This isn’t too big of concern for a general audience. If a soil map is desired, you can retrieve a soil map from the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Web Soil Survey from any computer with internet access.

I commend the California Soil Resource Lab for developing this app, and for making soil science accessible to the general public.

Here are some recent news articles on this topic:

One thing to note, for my international readers at least, is that the data used for this app is soil map digital data from the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Served (USDA NRCS). The NRCS uses Soil Taxonomy for soil classification. Although Soil Taxonomy is a global soil classification system, it is different from the World Reference Base system and others that exist.

Happy digging!

Groundhog Day Field Work

I made a trip to my research site on Groundhog Day. Before I tell you about the trip, I’ll first give you a little background on what I actually do for my research.

The focus of my dissertation is examining phosphorus dynamics in wetlands restored from agricultural soils. In lamen’s terms I look at the processes that change phosphorus (a nutrient) forms and locations within a wetland. That wetland, Juniper Bay, was a Carolina Bay wetland up until the 1970’s when it was drained and converted to row crop agriculture. In 2005 it was restored back to a wetland. However the nutrients contained in the soil, especially phosphorus, were at concentrations much higher than would be found in similar, but undisturbed wetlands.

For part of my project, I am looking at how concentrations of phosphorus change in the soil pore water in the presence of alive or dead roots from bald cypress trees. I did some work in the greenhouse, and now I’m working on the field component of that research.

On Groundhog Day I went to the field for my monthly soil pore water sample collection, and to take monthly pictures of roots of instrumented bald cypress trees. Here are those pictures:

This is my setup for taking root pictures. The tree is a bald cypress tree. To the left of it are nests of redox electrodes that measure how reduced the soil is (how anaerobic), and soil pore water samplers (called rhizon samplers). The silver tube is a rhizotron tube – a clear tube that allows the rhizotron camera (black rod sticking out of the tube) to take pictures of the roots at known depths. The camera is hooked up to a field computer and batteries. I have two tubes at eight sites (16 tubes total) that I use for root pictures. Those same trees are also instrumented with the samplers and electrodes. The eight sites are split into four sites that are on mineral soil, and four sites that are on organic soil.

Here’s a closer look at the setup:

On our route through the wetland we have to go through an area that is low in elevation, and is thus flooded for most of the year. Here’s a pic of my view as I drive through water that is a little deeper than axle deep on the ATV.

That location is about dead center of the wetland. The low area exists because that is where soil was borrowed to fill in the ditch that once existed to drain the site. The borrow and ditch areas are now low spots that are ponded year round in most years.

Here are a few other pics from the trip around Juniper Bay.

The entire Picasa album can be found at this link.

Hopefully that give you a little glimpse at what I do when I go to the field. It was a beautiful February day. It got up to around 70 degrees F so I got a good head start on my 2012 farmer’s tan.


As a graduate student in the NC State Department of Soil Science, and a member of the Soil and Water Conservation Society at NCSU I have had the pleasure of interacting with local Envirothon teams each spring. In a nutshell, Envirothon is a series of academic competitions at the local, state, and international level that focus on environmental science and ecology. The Canon Envirothon (international level competition) website does a great job at describing what it’s all about:

Canon Envirothon is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization established to coordinate the delivery of an environmental education program for high school students throughout North America.  Canon Envirothon is headquartered in League City, Texas.

The environmental education program consists of the annual Canon Envirothon Competition in which winning teams from participating states and Canadian provinces compete for recognition and scholarships by demonstrating their knowledge of environmental science and natural resource management. The competition is centered on four universal testing categories — soils/land use, aquatic ecology, forestry, and wildlife. They are also tested on a current environmental issue.

The Envirothon program is an effective educational tool, capable of supplementing environmental education both inside and outside the classroom. Led by a volunteer advisor, teams usually meet from late autumn until spring. Teams work collaboratively to develop their knowledge of ecology and natural resource management and to practice their environmental problem-solving skills in preparation for Envirothon competitions.

My interaction in the past has been teaching local teams about soils and land use. They have their local competitions in March, so usually in February myself and other students in the Dept. of Soil Science and members of the SWCS chapter do a one-day workshop (i.e. crash course) on soils and land use. This has been really fun in the past, and the students are truly interested in soils. Many of them ask better, more-informed questions than many of the undergraduates that I’ve taught in laboratory classes at NC State!

Colby teaching Envirothon students about the factors of soil formation

We will be doing another Saturday course in soils and land use this year. I’m looking forward to it. In addition, myself and a few other SWCS members will be writing the test for the local contest. That should be an interesting side of Envirothon to see.

Anyway, I just wanted to call attention to the Envirothon program. If you would like to find the Envirothon program in your state you can look here. They are always looking for more volunteers, donors, and competitors!

Good luck to all of the Envirothon teams this March in your local competitions!

Before you go, here is a link to pictures we took at last year’s soils and land use training.

Envirothon competitors learning how to use a soil survey
Fellow grad student Stephen Holland (green jacket) teaching Envirothon students how to describe a soil profile in a soil pit

Shoulders of Giants: Hugh Hammond Bennett

This is the first of a series of posts I’m planning for this blog that focus on scientists that paved the way for the current research in soil science, wetland science, and soil and water conservation. 

Most of the following was paraphrased from a biography of Hugh Hammond Bennett written by Dr. Maurice Cook, Emeritus Professor of Soil Science, North Carolina State University 

Hugh Hammond Bennett is a proud son of the state of North Carolina. Hugh Hammond Bennett was born on April 15, 1881, in Anson County, North Carolina where he grew up on his father’s 1,200-acre plantation in the Carolinas (Cook, 2012). He later received a degree in chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (I think if he was around today he would have enrolled in soil science at NC State, but  maybe I’m biased). His intentions were to follow a career in pharmacy, but instead fell into a position with the USDA as a chemist with the Bureau of Soils, and eventually started with the soil survey.

Through his experience in the soil survey, Bennett realized the effects of soil erosion and the negative impacts it had on agriculture. This lead him to eventually publishing Soil Erosion, A National Menace which, through Bennetts political connections, eventually lead to some federal funding approved for erosion research. This funding Bennett established a network of ten erosion stations in various problem areas of the country: Clarinda, Iowa; Hayes, Kansas; Bethany, Missouri; Statesville, North Carolina; Zanesville, Ohio; Guthrie, Oklahoma; Temple, Texas; Tyler, Texas; Pullman, Washington; and La Crosse, Wisconsin. Through the affirmative data found at these research sites, Cook states there were finally “positive tangible results of [Bennett’s] efforts to arouse the American public to act. The soil erosion peril was, for the first time in the nation’s history, an official concern.

This was occurring during the great depression, and right before the peak of the dust bowls in the southern Great Plains. As part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Civilian Conservation Corps was established. With that, the Soil Erosion Service was also created within the US Department of the Interior with Bennett in charge to lead the fight for soil conservation. Cook states that “The CCC was established ‘to carry out reforestation and other conservation projects in the national forests and national parks.’ A five-million-dollar appropriation was made available for erosion control on private and public lands, with work to be administered by the Bureau of Agricultural Engineering in the USDA.” At the request of the secretary of agriculture, the Soil Erosion Service was later moved from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture.

Shortly thereafter, huge dust storms swept across the Great Plains that carried Midwestern soil thousands of miles to the east coast. Soil erosion was now of national concern. The following is a direct quote from Cook:

In March 1935, a bill was introduced in Congress to set up the Soil Conservation Service as a permanent agency of the government. It was one of many dropped in the hopper under the urgency of the Dust Bowl and its accompanying consequences of depression, unemployment, and hunger. Bennett was called by a Senate committee to argue the case for the proposed legislation. His appearance and what followed it are now legendary. A Bennett biographer, Wellington Brink, graphically describes the event:

“The witness was not cheerful, but he was persistent, informed, and courageous. He told a grim story. He had been telling it all morning. Chapter by chapter, he annotated each dismal page with facts and figures from a reconnaissance he had just completed. . . . The witness did not hurry. He did not want to hurry. That extra ace he needed was not yet at hand. Well he realized that the hearing was beginning to drag. Out of one corner of his eye, he noted the polite stifling of a yawn, but Hugh Bennett continued deliberatively. . . . Bennett knew that a dust storm was on its way. He had newspaper items and weather reports to support this knowledge. But it seemed mighty slow arriving. If his delaying tactics were successful, the presence of the swirling dust—material evidence of what he was talking about—ought to serve as a clincher for his argument. Presently one of the senators remarked—off the record—’It is getting dark. Perhaps a rainstorm is brewing.’ Another ventured, ‘Maybe its dust.’ ‘I think you are correct,’ Bennett agreed. ‘Senator, it does look like dust.’ The group gathered at a window. The dust storm for which Hugh Bennett had been waiting rolled in like a vast steel-town pall, thick and repulsive. The skies took on a copper color. The sun went into hiding. The air became heavy with grit. Government’s most spectacular showman had laid the stage well. All day, step by step, he had built his drama, paced it slowly, risked possible failure with his interminable reports, while he prayed for Nature to hurry up a proper denouement. For once, Nature cooperated generously.”

Hugh H. Bennett in a field about four miles south of Haskell, Okla., in May 1943. It was estimated that about 75 percent of the topsoil had eroded from this field. (J.W. Hammett, SCS.)

Shortly thereafter, the Soil Conservation Act was passed by congress without a dissenting vote and signed by congress on April 27, 1935. The act established the Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service), as a permanent department of the USDA.  The departments first chief – Hugh Hammond Bennett.

Bennett was crucial in the development of science studying soil conservation. He was also vital to the implementation of conservation practices, and the development of local soil and water conservation districts. He was also a founding member of the Soil and Water Conservation Society.

Hugh Bennett officially concluded his career of distinguished public service on April 30, 1952, when he retired from the SCS. He died on July 7, 1960, after a long battle with cancer.

If you would like to find out more about Hugh Hammond Bennett, here are some very informational resources:

Hugh Hammond Bennett: the Father of Soil Conservation by Maurice G. Cook, Emeritus Professor of Soil Science, North Carolina State University

Profiles in the History of the US Soil Survey by Douglas Helms, Anne B. W. Effland, Patricia J. Durana

Soil Erosion: A National Menace by Hugh Hammond Bennett

Biography: Hugh Hammond Bennett from the PBS American Experience Series


Just a quick post today to share some good news. Yesterday I found out that the first research proposal I’ve ever written was funded by the Water Resources Research Institute of the University of North Carolina System pending available funds from federal and state sources (i.e. as long as nobody cuts their research budget funding sources). That’s awesome news.

My project will be determining the phosphorus (P) budget for the wetland I am a researching. That means that I will be measuring incoming and outgoing rates of P (a primary nutrient required for all life forms) in the wetland so we can predict future changes to P concentrations in water draining from the wetland.

I’m excited for the challenge, for the opportunity, for the research, and also for the impact this funding success will have on my early career. 2012 will be a fun and busy year!


There are many topics in soil science, and soil and water conservation that are worth a thorough discussion. One is soil erosion. Erosion is a vast topic so it will not all be addressed in one post, or even one blog for that matter. However, this blog post is the first of many in a series of blog posts that will address different aspects of soil erosion. First, I’ll define erosion and discuss why it’s almost always a bad thing.

The Soil Science Society of America defines erosion as follows:

erosion (ii) the detachment and movement of soil or rock by water, wind, ice, or gravity

I’ll stick with soil erosion by water and wind for this post.

The following descriptions of water and wind erosion was paraphrased from Chapter 14 of Brady and Weil (2010):

Water Erosion

Gully Erosion, Photo Courtesy of NRCS

Water erosion is a three-step process including steps 1) detachment, 2) transport, and 3) deposition. In a rain storm, falling rain drops impact the soil surface with tremendous force. When that occurs, soil particles are sent flying (detachment). When rain falls at a faster rate than what can infiltrate (enter) the soil, rainwater begins to pond on the surface and eventually flows downhill. The soil particles that were sent flying can eventually land on this flowing water and move with it downhill (transport).

If the flowing water has enough force it can also cause further erosion. If the water is flowing as a sheet of water (think water flowing smoothly over the windshield of your car) it is termed “sheet erosion”. If the water gathers together into tiny channels it is termed “rill erosion”. If the water collects even more, and erodes deep into the soil (on the scale of feet or meters) it is termed gully erosion. Most water erosion occurs by the impact of the rain drop.

Eventually the water will slow, and some soil particles will fall out of suspension and collect (deposition). The transported soil may travel just a couple of feet, or travel thousands of miles to be deposited in the ocean. Just think of why the Mississippi River is called “The Big Muddy”. It is because of all of the eroded soil that is in suspension in the river, and is being transported toward the Mississippi delta, and the Gulf of Mexico where it will eventually be deposited.

Wind Erosion

Photo from

Wind erosion, like water erosion, involves soil detachment, transportation, and deposition. Just the movement of wind is enough to detach some soil particles. Once the air is full of soil particles the wind becomes much more abrasive and can break down soil aggregates (detachment) and add more soil particles to the moving air. Once those soil particles are detached, they move by suspension, saltation, or creep. Small particles move by suspension, which is where the soil particle is suspended by the moving air. Saltation transports largger particles like sand. The particle is too heavy to be suspended for long distances in the air, but instead, the particle bounces along the surface of the soil in the direction the wind is blowing. The largest particles move by creep when they roll along the surface as they’re pushed by the wind, or as they are bombarded by particles being transported by saltation. Eventually the particles are deposited somewhere when the moving air slows down, or in an area that is protected from the wind.

Wind erosion has been a topic of interest recently in the news. Here is a video of a sandstorm that engulfed the City of Phoenix, Arizona in soil particles eroded by wind (a dust storm)

Also, a huge event in American history involved wind erosion – the Dust Bowl. The Dust Bowl will be a topic of several future blog posts as well so I won’t go into too much detail on that chapter of American history today.

Dust Bowl, Photo Courtesy of the NRCS

The Good and Bad of Soil Erosion

Erosion has good and bad things associated with it. It is bad when a farmer loses the best, most fertile soil on his land (near the surface) to erosion because this eventually makes his or her land less productive. Erosion by water is bad because it can bury benthic habitat in streams (where insect larvae like to live – among the small pebbles in the stream bed) which is a crucial part of the food web. Erosion by water is also bad because transported sediment can carry nutrients such as phosphorus, which can contribute to algal blooms, fish kills, and the dead zone at the mouth of the river systems like the Mississippi. Wind erosion has many negative health effects on humans, can damage our machinery, and can be harmful to plant life as well (think of what a sand blaster would do to a blade of grass).

Erosion also has a good side. Wind erosion and deposition contributed to the development of some of the most productive soils in places like Iowa. Loess (wind blown sediment) was eroded from the Missouri River valley during glaciations and was deposited all over the region. This loess is mostly silt, which stores a large amount of plant available water, among other desirable soil properties. It has also been found that soil particles eroded by wind in the Sahara blow all the way across the ocean to fertilize the nutrient-poor Amazon rain forest.

My lunch break is over, so that is all for now. I hope you found this quick summary of erosion interesting. Look for future posts on this topic that dive into specific aspects of erosion.

“Soil” vs. “Dirt”

Photo by Nicki of

As a soil scientist I often hear non-soil scientists refer to soil as “dirt”, or people even ask me if there’s a difference. In my mind there is. The simple difference is this: “dirt is soil where it’s not supposed to be”. For example, if your dog goes outside and plays in your backyard, he’ll be frolicking, running, walking, and rolling over soil. In this ecosystem (your yard) soil is a crucial component of the system providing a medium in which plants can grow, worms can crawl, kids can play, etc. Once your dog is all dirty and runs onto your kitchen floor before you have a chance to wash him off, he’ll leave a trail of paw prints behind him. The stuff that is all over the dog, and now the floor (which was once soil in your yard) is now dirt, because it’s not supposed to be there.

Clear as mud, right?

Here’s the scientific definition of soil, courtesy of the Soil Science Society of America:

soil (i) The unconsolidated mineral or organic material on the immediate surface of the earth that serves as a natural medium for the growth of plants.

(ii) The unconsolidated mineral or organic matter on the surface of the earth that has been subjected to and shows the effects of genetic and environmental factors of: climate (including water and temperature effects), and macro- and micro-organisms, conditioned by relief, acting on a parent material over a period of time. A product- soil differs from the material from which it is derived in many physical, chemical, biological, and morphological properties and characteristics.

Part ii of that definition gets a little “sciency”, but it refers to the five soil forming factors (CLORPT: CLimate, ORganisms, Relief, Parent material, and Time) which I will discuss in a future post. The important thing to remember (definition i) is that it is unconsolidated material (not completely solid material like rock) on the surface of our planet that can sustain plant life.

I gave an example of how soil becomes dirt. Dirt can also become soil. Let’s say you wash your dirty dog in a big tub. When your done, all of the dirt (it wasn’t supposed to be on the dog, on your floor, or in your tub) has now collected at the bottom of the tub. So you dump it out onto your back yard. Now this dirt is part of a functioning ecosystem again where it is on the surface of the earth and able to sustain plant life and feed worms. It is now soil.

One more comparison: you wash off dirt, while you use soil. For example:

Dirt — When your pants are dirty from gardening all day you throw them in the washing machine which washes off the dirt.

Soil — When you grow some tomatoes in your backyard the tomato plant uses the soil as a source of water and nutrients.

Thus, unlike “dirt”, soil is useful.  Personally, I am not offended by the use of the word “dirt”. However, it is a bit like calling a clean, well behaved dog a “dirty mongrel” in my opinion… just food for thought. To reinforce that point, compare the origins of the word “dirt” versus the origins of the word “soil“:

Dirt — 1250-1300; Middle English dirt, drit; cognate with Old Norse drit excrement; compare Old English dritan

Soil — 1300-50; Middle English soile < Anglo-French soy < Latin solium seat, confused with solum ground

In other words, “soil” is soil, while “dirt” is crap!

Hello world!

This is the first of many blog posts for my new website. First, let me introduce myself.

Who is Colby:

My name is Colby Moorberg. I am a doctoral student in the Department of Soil Science at North Carolina State University. I grew up on a small hog farm in Iowa. After a short mishap on a duck hunting adventure (involving me getting stuck waste-deep in mud, Okoboji muck to be exact, with no waders on) I fell in love with wetlands as an academic interest. I later enrolled in environmental science at Iowa State University with the goal of eventually doing wetland-related research. Along the way, with the help of some incredibly enthusiastic soil science professors at Iowa State, I found a second academic interest – soils. I graduated with a BS in environmental science in 2008 and continued on to earn a Mast of Science in soil science from NCSU in 2010. I plan to graduate with my Ph.D. in soil science from NCSU in 2013 with a minor in water resources. My sub-disciplines are hydropedology and soil physics.

My masters work, and now my Ph.D. work in soil science focuses on phosphorus transport in restored wetland soils that were previously under agricultural production. In lamens terms, I am studying how nutrients from fertilizer (that are critical for the growth of crops) effect wetlands that were restored from farmland, and the resulting effects on water quality. My career goal is to continue to study soils, wetlands, and soil and water conservation.

I am married to my beautiful wife, Stacy. We have a beagle named Maisie, and we also foster dogs for the Triangle Beagle Rescue of North Carolina. I am an avid cyclists and outdoorsman. If you want to know more about me, my family’s blog can be found here.

My goals for this website:

My initial plan is to provide a website that 1) informs the general audience about soils, wetlands, and science; 2) makes science personable, fun, understandable, and when possible – sexy; 3) gives you, the reader, direct access to a real life scientist (me) for any questions you may have, and 4) markets myself for a soil, wetland, or environmental scientist/professor position (let’s be honest, I’m a student who will need a job in a year and a half, I’ll be blunt about it).

So come back often, tell me what you think, ask me any questions you have, and suggest topics that you would like me to discuss in a blog post.


%d bloggers like this: