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Researchers probe soil in northern Ontario's Great Clay Belt, with a little help from some hunters

University of Guelph soil scientist Asim Biswas and his team have been getting their hands dirty recently on the Highway 11 corridor, between Hearst and Cochrane. They're researching an area known in the province as the Great Clay Belt. And that clay, as it so happens, is also great for getting stuck in.

What kind of research are they doing in northeastern Ontario, and why are they doing it?

University of Guelph professor and his crew of soil researchers have been probing northeastern Ontario soil to get a baseline on its condition, prior to more agriculture starting in the region. (Supplied/Asim Biswas)

University of Guelph soil scientist Asim Biswas and his team have been getting their hands dirty recently on the Highway 11 corridor, between Hearst and Cochrane. They're researching an area known in the province as the Great Clay Belt. And that clay, as it so happens, is also great for getting stuck in.

At one point, the group's truck became glued to the landscape as they attempted to move on to another soil sample site. Luckily, two hunters were able to help pull the professor out of his predicament, and he tweeted his gratitude.

So what kind of research are they doing in northeastern Ontario, and why are they doing it?

Biswas says they are continuing research into how soil will be affected as forested land is converted to agriculture land.

"A few years back, the ministry released a growth plan for northern Ontario. As part of the plan, the Northern Livestock Action Plan, [they were] proposing to ship to some livestock production up in the north as the climate is warming up," he told Up North CBC host Jonathan Pinto.

"But to develop that livestock production system, you need to have the production of locally grown food."

The province is interested in expanding agriculture in an area of northern Ontario called the Great Clay Belt — but what will that do to the soil in the region? We asked Professor Asim Biswas, a soil scientist from the University of Guelph working to find out. 7:55
Soil researchers from the University of Guelph are tracking changes to soil in northeastern Ontario as more farming moves north. (Supplied/Asim Biswas )

And that means shifting the boreal forest to pasture or hay land.

"So, we don't know how that impacts soil properties or soil, as well as the surrounding water conditions," he said. "That's why I'm proposing to see how the soil condition will change as an effect of this deforestation."

Using past research, including information from satellite images, they hope to map out changes to the soil over time.

Their hypothesis asks, as the land is changed from forest to other kinds of landscape, will the soil will lose its capability to support plant growth? And there are other concerns.

A researcher from the University of Guelph uses a hand-held corer to gather a soil sample in northern Ontario. (Supplied/Asim Biswas)

"There will be some human influence ... in terms of cutting down forests and planting hay or pasture. If we try to modify our soil, the carbon in our soil could be coming in close contact with the air or oxygen in the air, and it could create carbon dioxide, which is one of the greenhouse gases," Biswas said.

"Also, there could be more runoff that could be taking a lot of clay particles and organic matter from the soil to the closest water body."

Read more about his research here.

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