GeoLog

GeoLog

Geosciences Column: The World’s Soils are under threat

Geosciences Column: The World’s Soils are under threat

An increasing global population means that we are more dependant than ever on soils.

Soils are crucial to securing our future supplies of water, food, as well as aiding adaptation to climate change and sustaining the planet’s biosphere; yet with the decrease in human labour dedicated to working the land, never have we been more out of touch with the vital importance of this natural resource.

Now, the first-ever comprehensive State of the World’s Soil Resources Report (SWRS), compiled by the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils (ITPS), aims to shine a light on this essential non-renewable resource. The report outlines the current state of soils, globally, and what the major threats facing it are. These and other key findings of the report are summarised in a recent paper of the EGU’s open access Soil Journal.

The current outlook

Overall, the report deemed that the world’s soils are in fair to very poor condition, with regional variations.  The future doesn’t look bright: current projections indicate that the present situation will worsen unless governments, organisations and individuals come together to take concerted action.

Many of the drivers which contribute to soil changes are associated with population growth and the need to provide resources for the industrialisation and food security of growing societies. Climate change presents a significant challenge too, with factors such as increasing temperatures resulting in higher evaporation rates from soils and therefore affecting groundwater recharge rates, coming into play.

The three main threats to soils

Soil condition is threatened by a number of factors including compaction (which reduces large pore spaces between soil grains and restricts the flow of air and water into and through the soil), acidification, contamination, sealing (which results from the covering of soil through building of houses, roads and other urban development), waterlogging, salinization and losses of soil organic carbon (SOC).

Global assessment of the four main threats to soil by FAO regions. Taken from Montanarella, L., et al. 2016.

Global assessment of the four main threats to soil by FAO regions. Taken from Montanarella, L., et al. 2016.

Chief among the threats to soils is erosion, where topsoil is removed from the land surface by wind, water and tillage. Increasing rates of soil erosion affect water quality, particularly in developed regions, while crop yields suffer the most in developing regions. Estimating the rates of soil erosion is difficult (especially when it comes to wind driven erosion), but scientists do know that topsoil is being lost much faster than it is being generate. This means soil should be considered a non-renewable resource. When it comes to agricultural practices in particular, soils should be managed in such a way that soil erosion rates are reduced to near zero-values, ensuring long-term sustainability.

Eutrophication in lake Slotsø, Kolding, Denmark. Credit: Alevtina Evgrafova (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Eutrophication in lake Slotsø, Kolding, Denmark. Credit: Alevtina Evgrafova (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Soils contain nutrients, such as nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg) and sulphur (S), crucial for growing crops and pastures for raising cattle. While nutrient balance in soils has a natural variability, farming practices accelerate changes in soil nutrient content. Over-use of soils rapidly depletes the land-cover of nutrients and result in lower food production yields. This imbalance is often remedied by the addition of nutrients; in particular N and P. Excessive use of these practices, however, can lead to negative environmental effects, such as eutrophication (which increases the frequency and severity of algal blooms) and contamination of water resources. The findings of the report advocate for the overall reduction of use of fertilisers, with the exception of tropical and semi-tropical soils in regions where food security is a problem.

Carbon (C) is a fundamental building block of life on Earth and the carbon cycle balances the amount of C which ultimately enters the atmosphere, helping to stabilise the planets temperature. Soils play a significant role in helping to preserve this balance. Soil organic carbon (SOC) acts as a sink for atmospheric C, but converting forest land to crop land saw a decrease of 25-30% in SOC stocks for temperate regions, with higher losses recorded for the tropics. Future climate change will further affect SOC stocks through increased temperatures and fluctuating rainfall, ultimately contributing to risks of soil erosion and desertification and reducing their ability to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. It is vitally important that governments work towards stabilising, or better still, improving existing SOC stocks as a means of combating global warming.

Preserving a valuable resource

The case is clear: soils are a vital part of life on Earth. It is estimated that worsening soil condition will affect those already most vulnerable, in areas affected by water scarcity, civil strife and food insecurity.

Bed planting in northern Ethiopia. Credit: Elise Monsieurs (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Bed planting in northern Ethiopia. Credit: Elise Monsieurs (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Initiatives such as the 2015 International Year of Soil and the production of the SWRS report are fundamental to raise awareness of the challenges facing soil resources, but more needs to be done:

      1. Sustainable soil management practices, which minimise soil degradation and replenish soil productivity in regions where it has been lost, must be adopted to ensure a healthy, global, supply of food.
      2. Individual nations should make a dedicated effort to establish appropriate SOC-improving strategies, thus aiding adaptation to climate change.
      3. Manging the use of fertilisers, in particular N and P, should be improved.
      4. There is a dearth of current data, with many of the studies referenced in the SWRS report dating from the 1980s and 1990s. For accurate future projections and the development and evaluation of tools to tackle the major threats facing soils, more up-to-date knowledge about the state of soil condition is required.

Soils, globally, are under threat and their future is uncertain. The authors of report argue that “the global community is presently ill-prepared and ill-equipped to mount an appropriate response” to the problem. However, adoption and implementation of the report findings might (by policy-makers and individuals alike) just turn the tide and ensure soils remain “humanity’s silent ally”.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

References

Montanarella, L., Pennock, D. J., McKenzie, N., Badraoui, M., Chude, V., Baptista, I., Mamo, T., Yemefack, M., Singh Aulakh, M., Yagi, K., Young Hong, S., Vijarnsorn, P., Zhang, G.-L., Arrouays, D., Black, H., Krasilnikov, P., Sobocká, J., Alegre, J., Henriquez, C. R., de Lourdes Mendonça-Santos, M., Taboada, M., Espinosa-Victoria, D., AlShankiti, A., AlaviPanah, S. K., Elsheikh, E. A. E. M., Hempel, J., Camps Arbestain, M., Nachtergaele, F., and Vargas, R.: World’s soils are under threat, SOIL, 2, 79-82, doi:10.5194/soil-2-79-2016, 2016.

Status of the World’s Soil Resources, 2015, Food and Agricultire Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.

Soils are endangered, but degradation can be rolled back, 2015, FAO News Article.

Imaggeo on Mondays: an impressive testimony to the collision between Africa and Europe

Imaggeo on Mondays: an impressive testimony to the collision between Africa and Europe

The huge fold in the flank of the 2969 m high Dent de Morcles (in Waadtland Alps, Switzerland) is an impressive testimony to the collision between Africa and Europe (which began some 65 million years ago). The layers, originally deposited on the sea floor in a horizontal position, were compressed and shifted. The darker parts developed during the Tertiary period (66 million years ago). They are younger than the greyish and yellowish limestone of the Cretaceous period (which began 145.5 million years ago and ended 79 million years later).

With the aim to capture the Dent de Morcles, this spectacular geological feature, I took a photo flight in the Waadtland Alps in Switzerland. We started with a helicopter from a little airport around 20 kilometres away from this location. The weather was mixed – sunny with a few clouds around. But when we reached Dent de Morcles the sun was hidden by a cloud which didn’t move away. We circled and circled around waiting for sun rays to light up the fold structure. I got quite nervous because every minute up there costs a lot of money. Suddenly a little whole opened in this huge cloud and Dent de Morcles was illuminated,  exactly as I’d hoped for. Only for some seconds. But enough time to take this aerial shot.

By Angelika Jung-Hüttl (Freelance science author) and Bernhard Edmaier (geologist and photographer)

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

GeoTalk: Matt Taylor of ESA’s Rosetta Mission

GeoTalk: Matt Taylor of ESA’s Rosetta Mission

In November 2014, space exploration history was made. Millions of kilometres away, orbiting a piece of ice and rock, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta mission sent its probe Philae to become the first spacecraft to soft-land on a comet.

rosetta_tweet1

After the tense 7-hour wait that followed the separation from the main orbiter, a tweet confirmed that the little lander had successfully completed the first part of its mission. Following a 10-year journey through space, on the back of the Rosetta spacecraft, Philae had successfully touched down on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

Tweet_rosetta

The story of Rosetta and Philae will go down in the history books, like others before it, and ignite the imagination of children and adults alike, for whom space is the ultimate frontier.

These great stories of space exploration have inspired the 2016 Geosciences Information For Teachers (GIFT) workshop: The Solar System and Beyond, which took place during the EGU General Assembly in Vienna. The symposium combined presentations on current research by leading scientists with hands-on activities presented by science educators for 80 teachers from 20 different countries.

The keynote lecture was given by Matt Taylor, the Rosetta Project Scientist at ESA, who told the remarkable story of Rosetta and its companion, Philae. I was lucky to catch up with Matt during the conference and we spoke about the GIFT workshop, science fiction, and life after Rosetta (with the mission end now confirmed for September 2016).

 

Matt, thank you for talking to me today. Before we get stuck into details about the Rosetta mission and your time at the conference, could you tell our readers a bit more about your role as project scientist for the mission?

I basically act as a link between the scientific community and ESA. There are many instruments on board Rosetta and Philae, with each of their operations being coordinated by a lead scientist. With such a mix of instruments, all pointing in different directions and with different goals, it’s up to me to coordinate the work of the lead scientists and ensure that we get everything we need to do, done. I try to make sure everyone is happy, or unhappy, as the case may be!

I also provide outreach support for the mission, by giving public lectures and taking part in projects such as the GIFT workshop here at EGU 2016.

The aim of the GIFT workshops is to spread first-hand scientific information to science teachers which they can then use in the classroom to inspire their students and engage them with science. Often, outreach efforts are directed towards the students themselves, so why do you think it is important to inspire teachers about science too?

Matt Taylor speaking at the 2016 General Assembly. Credit: Laura Roberts/EGU

Matt Taylor speaking at the 2016 General Assembly. Credit: Laura Roberts/EGU

It is fundamentally important. Teachers are the ones who really engage school children with a subject. But to do that, it is important to equip them with the right tools, while at the same time trying to engage and inspire them too. That way they can take those tools back to the classroom.

Truth be told, I find it inspiring talking to teachers. After the lecture today I was struck by how motivated and engaged the teachers participating in the GIFT workshop are! One of the teachers, who teaches science at a city school, told me how good it was for them to see science in action [at the conference] and be exposed to STEM subjects.

 

And what is it about space, do you think, that captures so many people’s imagination and is such a great tool to engage the masses with science?

Space has that ‘WOW’ factor. Yet it is also relatable because you can look up and perceive it through the night sky.

Then there is that adventurous aspect to it. It’s the going out there and exploring the unknown. It makes us appreciate we are so tiny and really draws on the idea of ‘where do we come from?’

It is to do with how you package it, and science fiction helps really helps with that. Take the Star Trek films.

And pictures really help. Images allow you to put science ideas across very easily and in a very engaging way – and space gives us a lot of incredible images to work with.

Comet 67P on 14 March 2015 – taken by the NavCam. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

Comet 67P on 14 March 2015 – taken by the NavCam. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

There is no doubt that the Rosetta mission caught the attention of the media and public alike! So let’s talk about it a little bit more. What about the mission, would you say is, scientifically speaking, the most exciting?

Comets are the building blocks of life. Studying them has a real connection to the bigger picture stuff: where do we come from, how did the solar system form? For me, the findings of the mission contributing to that has to be the most exciting part.

And on a personal level, what is it like working on the mission and why is it exciting?

It’s, actually, just a normal job.

Day to day the work can be quite boring. A lot of my time is spent coordinating projects, going to meetings… same as anyone else. It’s when I give talks and take part in outreach events such as the ones here at the General Assembly that I am reminded about how cool this mission really is.

Recently, I’ve been excited to work on the final trajectory scenario and deciding how are we going to ‘end’ Rosetta.

Not so cool, are the conspiracy theories and being trolled on twitter, repeatedly, about whether Philae actually ever landed on comet 67P.

You mention the end of Rosetta, what is next for the mission?

The mission will end, operationally, in September. After that we’ll be focusing 100% on the science including ensuring all the data from the mission is in the best format for future scientists. There will be findings coming out of the mission for some time yet! In fact, school students now will be able to work on Rosetta data in graduate school! That’s how important and groundbreaking this mission is.

And once the mission is over, what is next for you?

Chances are I’ll be allocated to another mission, but that will depend on what the science community are pushing for [in terms of new missions] currently and whether my expertise are a good fit.

It’s unlikely I’ll work on something as big as Rosetta again. Funding for space missions is allocated well in advance and there is nothing in the pipe-line on the scale of Rosetta.

But I’m ok with that. I’m actually looking forward to a quieter life. Working on Rosetta has meant letting a few things go by the way side and I’ll now have time to start exercising and looking after my health a little more!

Even though there won’t be another Rosetta, which upcoming missions do you think are ones to watch?

I, personally, don’t think there is anything like Rosetta coming up soon. Rosetta has lots of elements that make it so attractive: the science is exciting, it takes us to the limits of space exploration, it was the first known comet and yet before we got there we had no idea what 67P looked like….

That said there are some exciting missions coming up: JUICE – JUpiter ICy moons Explorer – which is headed to Jupiter in 2022 and will study the gas giant and three of its icy moons. It gets there in

Matt is a self-confessed metal head. Credit: Matt Taylor

Matt is a self-confessed metal head. Credit: Matt Taylor

2030 – the year I’m due to retire!

I’ll also be keeping my eye on BepiColombo, ESA’s first mission to Mercury, and the Solar Orbiter, which will make the closest approach, ever, to the Sun and study solar wind.

I thought we could finish the interview on a light note. In the past I’ve asked scientists I’ve interviewed to come up with a brand new chemical element. If you could invent an element, what would it be and what would it do?

It would have to be Limenium – after Lemmy, frontman of the rock band Motörhead. It would allow you to exude rock & roll!

[As well as being a physicist, Matt is a self-confessed metal head, so much so he was recently awarded the Spirit of the Hammer of the Golden Gods].

 

Interview by Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

 

Further reading:

  • The Rosetta Blog: For all the science prior to and after the comet landing.
  • Find out more about the Rosetta mission: http://rosetta.esa.int/
  • DLR, the German space agency, played a major role in building the Philae lander and runs the lander control centre.
  • The Philae Blog: to recap exciting moments of the little lander’s mission.
  • Ambition, the film: a short science fiction film that tells the story of comet-chasing spacecraft Rosetta

GeoPolicy: 8 ways to engage with policy makers

GeoPolicy: 8 ways to engage with policy makers

Scientific research is usually verbally communicated to policy officials or through purposefully written documents. This occurs at all levels of governance (local, national, and international). This month’s GeoPolicy post takes a look at the main methods in which scientists can assist in the policy process and describes a new method adopted by the European Commission (EC) that aims to enhance science advice to policy.

Contrary to what is commonly thought, science-for-policy communication can be instigated by both scientists and policy officials (not just from the policy end). Scientists are increasingly encouraged to step out of their ‘ivory tower’ and communicate their science to the glittering world of policy. During my PhD, I presented my thesis results to civil servants at the UK Government’s Department for Energy and Climate Change. That meeting was a result of me directly contacting the department with a summary of my work. Scientists should not feel afraid to contact relevant policy groups, although this is perhaps easier to do on the local / national scale rather than on the international level.

 

Types of policy engagement

Some of the commonly reported scientific evidence for policy methods are described below:

  1. Surveys: Government organisations may send out targeted or open questionnaires to learn stakeholders’ opinions on certain topics. This method is used for collecting larger sample sizes and when the general consensus and/or dominant views need to be known.
  2. Interviews: one-on-one meetings are commonly used for communicating science to policy officials; either by phone or in person. These provide opportunities for in-depth discussions and explanations.
  3. Discussion workshops: the term ‘workshop’ is loosely used when referring to science policy. It can describe a semi-structured meeting where no predefined agenda has been set, or the term can refer to participants systematically discussing a topic with specific aims to be achieved (Fischer al., 2013). Workshops can involve solely scientists or combine policy workers and scientists (examples of the latter at the UK Centre from Science and Policy). Workshops usually result in a written summary which can be used for policy purposes.
  4. Seminars: experts give talks on their research for interested policy officials to attend and ask questions afterwards. For more tips on ways to communicate science to policy officials please read May’s GeoPolicy post.
  5. Policy briefings: may refer to a several types of written document. They are usually written after a workshop or to summarise scientific literature. Briefings are usually written by so-called bridging organisations, which work at the science-policy interface. These documents can be relatively brief, e.g., the American Geophysical Union (AGU) have published several ‘factsheets’ on different Earth-science topics, or more detailed, e.g., the UK Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) regularly publishes ‘POSTnotes’.
  6. Reports: these are far longer documents which review the current scientific understanding. The IPCC reports are key examples of this, but it should be noted that any long report intended for wider-audiences should always contact a short summary for policymakers as they almost certainly do not possess the time to read full reports.
  7. The Delphi method: this less-commonly known practice combines both individual and group work and is supposed to reduce biases that can occur from open discussion platforms. Experts answer questions posed by policy workers in rounds. In between each round an anonymous summary of the opinions is presented to the participants, who are then asked if their opinions have changed. The resulting decisions can then draft a policy briefing.
  8. Pairing schemes: an alternative method used to bridge the science policy gap. This is a relatively new initiative but examples have occurred on the national (Royal Society and MPs paired together in the UK) and international level (EU MEPs paired with European-based scientists). These schemes involve an introductory event at the place of governance, which include seminars and discussions. Bilateral meetings are then organised at the Scientists’ institutions. These initiatives aim to help participants on both sides appreciate the different working conditions they experience. The EU-wide pairing scheme encourages pairs to work together producing a science policy event at a later date. This is still to be determined as the initial pairing only occurred in January.

 

Recruiting scientists

Different pathways exist for scientists to partake in these meetings. These include:

More commonly, scientists are contacted through the policy organisation’s extended personal network. This has been criticised as it can restrict the breadth of scientific evidence reaching policy, as well as it being not transparent. Under EC President Jean-Claude Junker, a Scientific Advice Mechanism has been defined, in which a more transparent framework for science advice to policy has been set out.

 

What is the Science Advice Mechanism? (SAM)

The Science Advice mechanism. Slide taken from presentation entitled “A new mechanism for independent scientific advice in the European Commission” available on the EC Website.

The Science Advice mechanism. Slide taken from presentation entitled “A new mechanism for independent scientific advice in the European Commission” available on the EC Website.

 

This mechanism aims to supply the EC with broad and representative scientific in a structured and transparent manner. The centre-point to this is the formation of a high level scientific group which will work closely with the EC services. This panel comprises seven members “with an outstanding level of expertise and who collectively cover a wide range of scientific fields and expertise relevant for EU policy making”. This panel provides a close working relationship with learned societies and the wider scientific community within the EU. Since its initiation is 2015 the panel has met twice to discuss formalising this mechanism further. The minutes for the meetings are publically available here. More information about SAM is available in the EPRS policy briefing ‘Scientific advice for policy-makers in the European Union’.

Previously, the EU had appointed a Chief Scientific Advisor, however this role was discontinued after 3 years as it was considered too dependent on one individual’s experience. A panel is thought to provide a broader range of scientific advice.

 

Follow

Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: