$1.1M NASA Grant to Help UMD Researcher Study Impact of Climate Smart Farming on Greenhouse Gases and Pollution

Stephanie Yarwood and her colleagues will use satellite data to understand nitrogen emissions from agricultural land.

Image Credit: Edwin Remsberg

October 5, 2023 Kimbra Cutlip

NASA awarded nearly $1.1M to a multi-institutional team including University of Maryland’s Associate Professor Stephanie Yarwood to study the relationship between farming practices and nitrogen emissions to the atmosphere. Various conservation practices are known to help reduce nitrogen emissions from farmlands, but the real-world effects of those practices on the atmosphere has been limited, in part because the right data hasn’t been available.

Compared to metropolitan areas of the country, air quality measurements over agricultural regions are sparse. But with funding from NASA, Yarwood and her colleagues will be filling in the gaps with satellite data to answer questions about how what happens on farms affects nitrogen compounds in Earth’s atmosphere.

“I’m really excited about this project,” said Yarwood, who is in the Department of Environmental Science and Technology. “It’s interesting for me as a microbial ecologist who often thinks in scales no bigger than a shovel full of soil to be involved in these projects with collaborators that work on much larger scales and think of large, atmospheric effects.”

Farm animal waste and fertilizers in the soil are primary contributors of nitrogen to the atmospheric pollutant ammonia (NH3) and ozone-depleting nitrogen oxides (NOX) that cause global warming. Using satellite data, the scientists will identify “hot spots” above farmlands and natural areas where levels of ammonia and nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere rise, as well as “hot moments,” specific times and conditions in which hot spots occur. They will then assess those hot spots and moments against maps of soil type and information about the landscape to select study areas with similar characteristics where farming practices differ.

Their aim is to compare how differing land use and farming practices impact nitrogen loss from farms under varying conditions. An important part of the research involves examining the soil microbes in each of their study areas to determine how they are affected by conservation practices, and how the microbial communities control how much and what kind of nitrogen is released into the air and water.

Ultimately, they intend to develop mathematical models that can predict the movement of nitrogen through agricultural systems based on soil type, landscape, environmental conditions and farming practices.  

The resulting models will help policy makers and stakeholders make effective decisions around which climate smart farming methods will have the largest impact on reducing nitrogen emissions from agriculture. These advances will be important in addressing three key problem areas:

  • Local and regional air quality across the U.S.: Ammonia from farm animal waste presents a health hazard to agricultural communities and surrounding areas.
  • Global climate and concerns for environmental justice: Agriculture in the Global North releases large amounts of nitrogen oxides that depletes the ozone layer and increases health risks such as the risk of skin cancer disproportionally in the Global South.
  • Soil health: Microbial communities in the soil have a large impact on how nitrogen is cycled between plants, water and atmosphere, all of which affects crop yields and determines what gases are released into the air.

The project will take place over three years and field assessments are expected to begin this winter and spring.