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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.

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

Gender equality in the geosciences: is it a numbers game?

Gender equality in the geosciences: is it a numbers game?

Here’s a tricky question for you. Try and name a woman in geoscience who has won an award for their studies in the last 5 years? How about a man? Chances are it is much easier to think of a male geoscientist who has won an award than a female one, but is that because more men win awards in geoscience than women (compared to the number of male and female geoscientists)?

This was the question that was raised at an innovative session co-organised by the European Research Council on ‘Promoting and supporting equality of opportunities in geosciences’, at the European Geosciences Union’s General Assembly in April this year. The session focused on gender based equality, and addressed the experiences of women from subject-based, institutional, national, and organisational levels. As well as the individual experiences described in the session, questions were also asked more broadly of the role of large organisations such as the publishing houses (including Nature and Science), the European Research Council and EGU – with a particular focus on recognition and awards.

Awards are not only useful for career progression for early career scientists (ECS), but also raise the profile of the researchers gaining them, who act as role models for junior staff and students. If women are missing out on awards that could not only impact negatively on the career prospects of those individuals, but also reflect a bigger issue in how women in geoscience are rewarded (or not) for their work.

The EGU has a unique insight into the question of gender equality in the geosciences as it has some data from its members, but also presents several of our discipline’s most prestigious awards and medals, to both advanced and early careers scientists. Alberto Montanari, the outgoing Chair of the EGU Awards Committee, presented the results of an investigation into the balance of male and female award winners.

First, some numbers. Every year the European Geosciences Union awards dozens of prizes to some of the world’s leading geoscientists. These prizes cover Union Medals and Awards, Division Medals, and Division Outstanding Early Career Scientists Awards (previously known as the Division Outstanding Young Scientists Award) . All award or medal nominees must be members of EGU to be eligible. The 2016 awards received 155 nominations, of which 16% were for female scientists. Of the total 49 prizes given this year eight were for female scientists (three of those were for early careers scientists). What is also important to note is the total number of EGU members divided by gender. In 2015, 69% of members were male and 31% were female, with the difference between male and female member proportions more pronounced for early careers scientists.

How visible are women in geoscience? (Mapping the Algerian shoreline credit: Filippo Dallosso, distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

How visible are women in geoscience? (Mapping the Algerian shoreline. Credit: Filippo Dallosso, distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Secondly came an interesting question – how do we compute gender equality for award winners? Do we calculate the total number of female award winners per female membership percentage, or the total number of female award winners by the whole population of members – male and female? This question raises an interesting dilemma as both methods have positives and negatives. If we calculate the number of female winners by the population of female members then essentially this is saying men and women have an equal chance of winning within their gender grouping. However this masks the potential for women to be underrepresented within the organisation, as is currently the case in EGU right now.

On the other hand if we calculate the number of female award winners by the total population of members (male or female) the female winners become equally as visible as the male winners. This can act as a catalyst that places the EGU as a gender balanced society, which could in theory encourage greater female membership. On the negative side, it does make it more competitive (proportionally) for members that want to win an award, and this is not what gender equality should be about.

When asked which of the two approaches he thought would be more useful in promoting greater gender equality in the geosciences, Montanari said:

“My opinion is that it is more appropriate to refer to the percentage of female awardees over the female membership. I think this is much more protective for women themselves, as awarding excessive recognition weakens the value of awarded women. Many women have confirmed this interpretation.”

He also added:

“This is a delicate question that would deserve a more profound discussion.”

One final thought on this issue, came, repeatedly from both the audience and the speakers. Although it is vitally important that gender equality is addressed in geoscience, it is not the only type of equality that needs to be examined. We need to be aiming for parity in racial, national and disability accessibility, to name just a few areas and it is hoped that in the future, EGU sessions like this one will continue to challenge our preconceptions of equality and fairness in our science.

By Hazel Gibson, EGU General Assembly Press Assistant and Plymouth University PhD student.

Hazel is a science communicator and PhD student researching the public understanding of the geological subsurface at Plymouth University using a blend of cognitive psychology and geology, and was one of our Press Assistants during the week of the 2016 General Assembly.

 

GeoEd: Planet Press – geoscience news for children

GeoEd: Planet Press – geoscience news for children

Inspiring children to be interested in the geosciences isn’t always an easy task. While dinosaurs, volcanoes and earthquakes are a sure hook (rightly so!), there is also much more to the Earth, ocean and planetary sciences!  Not only that, but new developments happen much more quickly than the lifetime of a textbook, meaning that breaking science is often underreported in the classroom.  However, distilling the complex science behind ocean dead zones, how scientists measure the height of ice sheets and the history of European droughts, into children friendly language which captures the imagination isn’t plain sailing.

In September 2014 the EGU developed the Planet Press initiative – engaging and bitesize press releases for kids, parents and educators to help them get to grips with the latest geoscientific research going on across the world. Planet Presses are primarily aimed at 7 to 13 year olds, but can be used by children in other age groups too!

How are Planet Presses made?

The starting point is a press release – a statement released to journalists to alert them about exciting and newsworthy research published in one of the EGU’s open access journals.

Example of a Planet Press Release: Studying glaciers with animated satellite images, published September 2015.

Example of a Planet Press Release: Studying glaciers with animated satellite images, published September 2015.

A Planet Press (PP), is then written in-house by a member of the EGU’s communication team (mostly by the Media and Communications Manager, Bárbara Ferreira), based on an existing EGU press release.

It is reviewed by two scientists, as well as an educator to ensure the science content is accurate and the writing is appropriate for the target age group. In addition, fun printable versions are then made for classroom use.

Because Planet Presses are intended for use across Europe, the final step of the process is to have them translated into various languages. This is done by volunteer scientists and educators.

Planet Press, two years on

Since the start of the project, 36 PPs (out of 36 press releases) have been published. You can download copies of all the existing texts on the EGU website. The texts have been translated approximately 220 times, including into Serbian, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese and many other languages too. This truly herculean task has been accomplished by a team of over 60 volunteers, without whom the Planet Press project wouldn’t be the success it is today. (All figures correct at time of publication of blog post).

“This is one of the most exciting and rewarding projects I work on at the EGU,” says Bárbara. “Planet Press has received incredibly positive feedback from both scientists and educators, and when I presented it at the EGU 2016 General Assembly, many in the audience gave constructive and useful suggestions for improvement, which we’ve since implemented in the most recent texts. Further, whenever we put out calls for volunteers on our social media channels, I always receive plenty of emails from people interested in helping out with Planet Press, and who are extremely keen to dedicate some of their time and energy to getting geoscientific news to kids around Europe (and further afield).”

Lessons learnt and challenges

The coordination of the volunteers is time consuming and one of many side projects and tasks the EGU’s Media and Communications Manager works on. Despite this limitation, the project has received praise from scientists who enjoy seeing their work being made accessible to a younger audience, as well as educators who use the PPs in the classroom.

But it is precisely distributing the texts to a wide number of educators and ensuring it reaches an extensive demographic of children which remains one of the main challenges of the project. Currently, newly produced releases are advertised on the EGU’s social media channels, as well as the EGU’s website and amongst the educators part of the EGU’s GIFT programme. However, many of those who receive the announcements are not the target audience of the Planet Presses, though we are working to change that and get Planet Press to reach more schools kids across Europe.

Not only that, once the texts have been produced and distributed, measuring their impact: how well they do, how useful educators and children find them and how well they achieve their aim of engaging children with the Earth and planetary sciences, remains very difficult to establish and quantify. This is something we are planning on improving in the future.

Languages into which Planet Presses have been translated into so far (figure correct as of April 2016). Credit: Bárbara Ferreira / EGU

Languages into which Planet Presses have been translated into so far (figure correct as of April 2016). Credit: Bárbara Ferreira / EGU

A final hurdle is the dearth of translations in a number of languages including Slovenian, Russian, Dutch, Croatian and Swedish. So, if you feel inspired to contribute to the effort of translating existing releases, or indeed reviewing the scientific or educational content of the PPs, please contact Bárbara Ferreira.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

This post is based on ‘Planet Press: an EGU initiative to bring geoscientific research to children’, a presentation by Bárbara Ferreira, at the EGU 2016 General Assembly in session EOS4 – Communication and Education in Geoscience: Practice, Research and Reflection. You can download a copy of Bárbara presentation here.

Planet Press, has the support of the EGU Committee on Education. We are grateful for the help of Jane Robb, former EGU Educational Fellow, with launching the project. Planet Press is inspired by Space Scoop, an initiative by UNAWE, the EU-Universe Awareness organisation, that brings astronomy news to children every week.

 

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