University leads the way in vital global soil research

A new multi-million pound University of Sheffield-based study looks set to tackle the problem of global soil degradation, which is threatening the environment, biodiversity and poses a major risk to global food security and the global economy.

As part of project Soiltrec, experts from the University, along with others in Europe, USA and China, have established networks of field research stations to study the valuable services that soils provide to humanity. It is hoped these research stations will help experts find out how to protect soil against the threats posed by climate change and increasing food and energy demand from a growing human population.

The University of Sheffield, which leads the European research consortium, will receive £700,000 as part of a total European Commission investment of 7 Million Euros over the next 5 years to support this scientific research in the EU, USA and China. The investment is part of the 7th Framework Programme and the new funds also include support for EU and Chinese teams to link with researchers who are funded from the USA National Science Foundation’s Critical Zone Observatory Programme.

Soil threats include erosion that washes soil from the land surface into rivers, loss of organic matter as a store of nutrients and as an essential glue to keep soil in place, and loss of biodiversity and key soil organisms. Loss of soil fertility is also a major threat due to pollution, compaction during intense farming, sealing over by expanding cities and deposition of salt from evaporating irrigation water in dry regions.

Like fossil fuels, soil forms at a very slow rate, with roughly one centimetre of new soil produced every century. Currently global soil degradation is occurring much faster than soil formation, largely as a result of unsustainable land management.

Central to the project, experts at the University aim to study the natural processes that form soil and create its services to humanity, such as nourishing crops, filtering contamination from water, transforming nutrients, storing carbon, providing habitat for organisms and maintaining biodiversity. This research will include understanding how land can be managed to maintain these services and to encourage soil formation on quicker timescales to offset the current threats due to over intensive land use by humans.

Soiltrec’s field research stations will enable this research by taking a major new approach to soil study as they are designed as Critical Zone Observatories. The focus will be to use these observatories to gain scientific evidence on land use practice that will protect the central role of soil in the Earth’s Critical Zone. This is the thin layer of land at the Earth’s surface that extends from the top of the tree canopy to the lower reaches of drinking water aquifers. This zone is often only tens of metres deep, but within it, bedrock is slowly converted by the action of water and organisms into soil. This valuable resource nourishes land plants and humanity and supports a major part of our economy.

The international teams working on Soiltrec include top soil and water specialists, geologists and ecologists, engineers, management scientists and computer teams and the Joint Research Centre is also part of the project These scientists will work with land management experts to improve land use policy and practice.

Professor Steve Banwart from the University’s of Sheffield’s Kroto Research Institute, said: “Soil is under huge pressure from food demand and expanding cities world-wide. Our ultimate aim is to understand how organisms convert bedrock to produce soil in order to restore the equilibrium between soil erosion and formation, and to develop management strategies to safeguard this important natural resource.

“The project has wide-ranging implications, from understanding the impact of climate change, to ensuring food security and biodiversity and reimagining soil as a finite resource of huge economic value to humanity.”
 

For further information see the research group Critical Zones & Soils Science.