BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - Researchers from the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs are part of a group that has been awarded a $1.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to better understand the usefulness of cover crops as a climate mitigation and adaption tool from a range of biophysical and socio-economic perspectives.
The group, which is led by Professor Kim Novick and includes Professor Todd Royer, Assistant Professors Landon Yoder, Mallory Barnes, and Shellye Suttles, as well as University of Notre Dame Professor Jennifer Tank, will take a holistic approach to the climate, soil, and water quality benefits of cover cropping while mapping them across the landscape to better understand when and where cover crops are likely to succeed as a natural climate solution. The study aims to provide actionable policy and management guidance through committed partnerships with a broad community of private and public stakeholders.
Cover crops are non-harvested crops, such as winter and cereal rye, buckwheat, barley, or clover, which are planted when conventionally managed fields are fallow. They typically suppress weeds, return nutrients to the soil, protect water quality, and control pests, but they also are seen as a potential natural climate solution to sequester and store atmospheric carbon dioxide to aid in combatting climate change.
“Broadly speaking, natural or nature-based climate solutions represent managed alterations to ecosystems designed to enhance carbon uptake or reduce emissions of other greenhouse gasses,” Novick said. “Cover crops are believed to be effective natural climate solutions, but this perspective is informed by a surprisingly small amount of field trial data. Moreover, the data that do exist about the effects of cover crops on soil carbon storage don’t tell us much about how cover crops affect other greenhouse gases, water cycling, or local temperature.
“Our project will feature the collection of a very rich dataset on how cover crops affect not only soil carbon but also the movement of carbon dioxide between farmland and the atmosphere, between farmland and streams, and the interactions between carbon, nutrient, water, and energy cycles.”
Field observations will be integrated with satellite remote sensing data to create maps describing where cover crops will be most useful, while also narrowing the gap between the technical and realizable potential of cover crops across the Midwest. It also will include extensive farmer engagement and socio-economic modeling to help create effective and practical policies.
“These robust datasets we will generate could be a useful ‘gold-standard’ for mechanistic understanding of cover crops as a natural climate solution,” Novick said. “Many aspects of our work could also be easily translated to assess the socio-environmental potential of other natural climate solutions.”
The grant is part of the NSF’s Dynamics of Integrated Socio-Environmental Systems program, which supports research on integrated socio-environmental systems and the complex interactions within and among the environmental and human components of these systems.
Ken Bikoff, Faculty Liaison and Public Relations Officer
Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs | Indiana University
About the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs
The O’Neill School is a world leader in public and environmental affairs and is the largest school of public administration and public policy in the United States. In the 2022 "Best Graduate Public Affairs Programs" by U.S. News & World Report, the O'Neill School is one of the top-ranked programs in the country. Five of its specialty programs are ranked in the top-five listings, including top-ranked concentrations in environmental policy and management; nonprofit management; and public finance.