Don't Tread on Me

Dispatch by Sophie Poukish

The scene is Moab, Utah. The Colorado Plateau stretching and yawning with time visible upon it’s blackened pock-marked crust. No matter how lightly an individual imagines their footsteps floating above the surface of a fine rust hill, crunchy soil turns soft under their feet. Voices too small to be heard scream, yearning for acknowledgment. Nine inch footsteps unearth lichens, fungi, cyanobacteria, mosses, and algae, living communities comparable to Dr. Seuss imagery.

Biological crust lives in semi-arid and arid environments, which conveniently is 45% of the terrestrial planet. It lives between sleepy desert plants such as the woody, twisted sage that rests upon the humps of the Plateau. Drylands are due to increase 23% this century but the effects of Global Climate Change will offset this possibly with increased shorter, frequent rains and hotter temperatures. With these losses, biocrust’s important contributions such as nitrogen fixation, carbon fixation, microbial diversity, and soil stabilization will decrease. The Colorado Plateau will disrupt water soil relationships due to decreased soil absorption and decrease photosynthesis due to less rich, healthy soil for plant life to thrive. In other words, Biocrust is imperative to arid environments, coloring their landscapes with life and multi-functionality.  

The third International Workshop on Biological Soil Crusts took place in Moab between September 26th and September 30th. The conference works to form a collaborative community of interested parties from across the globe, creating an international conversation on biological soils, a topic that though relatively new to scientists, is quite old to earth’s living crust. BIOCRUST3 was a lively and impassioned space for scientists to share new theories, experiments, and their attached results. Biocrusts are model systems for climate change experiments due to their small size and varying life forms, representing four kingdoms in as small as an inch segment. One such experiment, the BIODESERT Survey, is studying public lands and the grazing that disrupts biocrust underneath them. This is very relevant to the Interior West because land is chalk full of hard earned blackened crust, while at the same time being notoriously grazed. The results of this study could inform the national public on the trampling of their land, hooves bursting through ecosystems as fast as carbon bursting into the stratosphere. Biocrust communities peep “Don’t Tread on Me”, their voices shrinking beneath footprints, rain, and heat.