Between a Rock and a Soil Place

Jenny Bower
University of Vermont Plant and Soil Science Department
VTeen 4-H Science Pathways Café


Cool Café Written by Henry Wu, Teen Leader


In September, the VTeen 4-H Science Pathways Café welcomed Jenny Bower, a PhD student in the Plant and Soil Science Department at the University of Vermont, to speak about her work in soil science and climate change. Jenny does research at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire where she studies nutrient levels in precipitation, streams, soil, and plants and analyzes how they indicate changes in climate. Hubbard Brook, established in 1955, is one of many research forests in the United States, where scientists and students from many different institutions can conduct experiments in a protected environment. Jenny told us that Hubbard Brook has special significance because it was the place where acid rain was first discovered in 1963. These findings influenced national legislation such as the Clean Air Act of 1970, causing sulfur dioxide emissions to decline dramatically. We had a discussion about why this was so successful. We concluded that cooperation between scientists and policymakers and widespread awareness of the findings contributed to the success of the research and the policies. Jenny explained that reflection upon this success story is crucial in today’s political (and actual) climate. Without scientific cooperation and political independence from corporations, finding solutions for climate change will be extremely difficult.

Jenny then talked about her research, which involves working with very small streams and making computer models of soil layers. Jenny analyzes spodosols (a type of soil with many layers) and uses geographic information systems (GIS) to map them in mountainous regions. The steep terrain angles the spodosols and weathering changes the composition of the soil, which in turn affects entire ecosystems.

Soil science is often overlooked as a key science, but as Jenny demonstrated, it is interdisciplinary, relevant, and fascinating. Soil forms the basis for almost all life on Earth and it can tell us a lot about the health of our planet. Another key takeaway from Jenny’s presentation is that science and policy go hand in hand. After all, science is about discovering things and solving problems. Dealing with climate change, a monumental problem, will require collaboration between scientists, teachers, politicians, and you!

Hands on Activity

Jenny and her assistants set up three stations to analyze soil in different ways. At the first station, we measured carbon content. By mixing soil samples with a brightly colored indicator of potassium permanganate and observing the final color, we could determine relative amounts of carbon (which indicates organic matter) in each sample. The next station involved soil classification by texture and size. Soil can be sand, silt, clay, or any combination of the three. We got our hands dirty and used a dichotomous key to classify our soils based on whether they stayed in a ball shape, how far they “stretched,” and their textures. The final station involved classifying soils by color. We mixed soil samples with water and compared them to a color book that contained cards similar to paint swatches. Soil colors are classified by hue, value (light/dark), and chroma (saturation). By analyzing soil using multiple methods, we can better understand how it supports life and impacts ecosystems.