Friday, December 11, 2015

Soils scientist Chien-Lu Ping prepares to retire

Chien-Lu surveys the landscape at Canada'a Ellef-Rigness Island.
After 33 years with the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station in Palmer, SNRE Soils Professor Chien-Lu Ping will retire at the end of the month.

He won’t be going away quite yet, however. He will work on two research grants through next summer and will continue to mentor two graduate students.
Chien Lu Ping
Chien-Lu Ping

Ping is known internationally for his work on carbon dynamics in arctic soils, a subject getting attention lately because of concerns about climate change. Research published in 2008 by Ping and a team of soil scientists showed that frozen arctic soil contains nearly twice as much organic carbon as was previously estimated. As these soils warm, more of the carbon stored in the deeper part of the soil can be released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane.

The soils professor helped organize the first U.S.-Russia Joint Seminar on Cryopedology (cold soils) and Climate Change and U.S.-Russia soils exchange excursions in northeast Russia, Yukon and Alaska from 1992-1994. He led a UAF expert team that participated in the technical review of the construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Railroad and two international soils excursions in the Tibet Plateau from 2000-2004.

Chien-Lu examines soils for a color determination this past summer.
Ping has published over 65 scientific journal articles and has been invited to speak to soil, climate change and permafrost gatherings in Norway, Sweden, China, Japan, Russia and Iceland. In 2014, he was named a Fellow of the Soil Science Society of America, an honor accorded to only .3 percent of society members.

Ping was born in mainland China, but in 1949, when he was 8, the Communists came to power and his family escaped to Taiwan. He earned an undergraduate degree in Taiwan and received a master’s degree in 1972 and a doctorate in 1976, both from Washington State University. He worked for the State of Washington for five years assessing forestland quality and productivity. After an economic downturn there, he applied for a job as an assistant professor of agronomy at Palmer and came north in 1982.

In his early years in Palmer, he worked on fertilizer trials with Research Associate Gary Michaelson at the experiment station and developed procedures for testing Alaska soils. Initially he studied volcanic ash soils in many areas of the state. In the late 1980s, he worked with USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service soil scientists to create a unified understanding of circumpolar arctic soils with Russian and Canadian soils experts.  According to Michaelson, Ping was instrumental in gathering the early and most complete data on permafrost-affected soils and was key in establishing the Gelisol soil order in the U.S soil classification system in 1998. He has continued his work on permafrost-affected soils with projects that examined soils across the tundra-taiga boundary, soils affected by frostboil-patterned ground in high-Arctic Canada and Alaska and arctic Alaska sea coast soil erosion. 

Chien-Lu evaluates polar desert moss soil on Canada's Ellef-Rigness Island.
Most recently he has been working with researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory to study the structure and carbon storage distribution of ice-wedge polygons, which are carbon storehouses. Ping said former Dean Jim Drew advised him to find a community of researchers to work with, rather than going it alone, and he took the advice to heart.

Twenty-three years ago, he developed the Alaska Soils Geography Field Trip (NRM 489) because students worked on Arctic research projects with him and he thought they should get field credit. As the word got out, the class attracted students from other universities in the U.S. and abroad as well as individuals from state and federal agencies who wanted to see the Arctic firsthand. More than 300 participants from 12 countries have learned about permafrost soils through the field trip.

“It’s a class for anybody who has an interest in the Arctic,” Ping said. This past summer, participants included three professors from Italy, professors from Virginia Tech and Texas Tech, and students from Alaska and other universities in the U.S. They studied soil geography from the Fairbanks area northward along the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay.

Ping says he is particularly grateful to Michaelson, who has worked with him on multiple research projects since 1983. He says, “I also want to share my appreciation for the support from the school, my colleagues and co-workers — and I will miss that.” Michaelson adds,  “It has been a pleasure to work with Chien-Lu for all these years. He has accomplished so much to advance our knowledge of and modernize concepts for northern soils, while collaborating with so many along the way and passing that knowledge and experience on to so many.”

After Ping retires, he will divide his time between Alaska and Orlando, Florida, where he has a home. He expects to spend more time with his family, including his grandchildren. He also wants to work more on his art. He paints with watercolors and oils and also does ink and brush painting.

The Matanuska Experiment Farm will host a potluck at noon today (Dec. 11) to celebrate Ping’s career and retirement. All in the area are invited.

Thanks to Gary Michaelson for sharing his photos.

Participants in the arctic soils field tour look at earth hummock soil in the Chandalar Shelf.

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