GeoLog

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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.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Why is groundwater so important?

Imaggeo on Mondays: Why is groundwater so important?

Groundwater is an often underestimated natural resource, but it is vital to the functioning of both natural and urban environments. Indeed, it is a large source of drinking water for communities world-wide, as well as being heavily used for irrigation of crops and crucial for many industrial processes. The water locked in the pores and cracks within the Earth’s soils and rocks, also plays an important role in the recharge of water in lakes, rivers and wetlands, as Anna Menció explains in today’s Imaggeo On Monday’s post.

The Pletera salt marsh area (NE Spain) is located in the north of the mouth of the Ter River, in a region mainly dominated by agriculture and tourism activities. Some of the coastal lagoons and wetlands in this area have been affected by the incomplete construction of an urban development. These wetlands and lagoons are the focus of a Life+ project, which aims to restore this protected area, and to recover its ecological functionality.

The Pletera coastal lagoons are periodically flooded by both, freshwater from streams and seawater, during storm events. However, the surface water inputs alone are insufficient to maintain them as permanent lagoons.

This picture is of Fra Ramon lagoon, one of the natural lagoons in the area. The preliminary results of a recent study showed that the recharge of Fra Ramon is dependent on groundwater inputs. In most of the sampling campaigns, freshwater from the aquifer may account for >50% of the lagoon water.

The ecological quality of these lagoons is also affected by nitrogen inputs, mainly produced during flooding events. Although in this area nitrate pollution is also detected in groundwater, with concentrations up to 100 mg NO3/L, natural attenuation processes in the aquifer occur. Effects of these processes are particularly detected close to the lagoons area, where low nitrate concentrations in groundwater are observed, with values below the detection limit. Considering that groundwater may present lower nitrogen concentrations than surface inputs observed during flooding events, these results reinforce the importance of groundwater dynamics in these systems, not only to maintain the permanent lagoons during dry periods, but also to preserve their quality.

By Anna Menció, researcher at the Department of Environmental Sciences of the University of Girona.

Acknowledgments: the study of the Pletera coastal lagoons is founded by LIFE 13 NAT/ES/001001, MINECO CGL-2014-57215-C4-2R, and UdG MPCUdG2016/061 projects.

 

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/.

GeoPolicy: 8 science-based projects improving regions in the EU

GeoPolicy: 8 science-based projects improving regions in the EU

As scientists, it can sometimes be difficult to see the real-world implications of some of our research. Concepts can often seem abstract and remote when sitting in a lab or taking field measurements. But researching the Earth sciences can have profound effects on global society. Understanding how the natural world works can help protect and improve human, animal, and plant life. This month’s GeoPolicy post (part of the European Geosciences Union GeoLog Blog) highlights EU funded projects that have their foundations in the Earth sciences.

EU member states can apply for regional project funding that aims to improve living standards for the residents living within that region. Projects can be technology, medicine, environment, or social-science based. This post highlights 8 projects that have resulted from earth-science research. Scroll down to see what projects are going on in your country, or your area of science. A full list of EU funded projects can be found here and more information on the EU regional development fund can be found on their website.

 

Preventing coastal erosion in Southern France

Coastal erosion causes coastlines to collapse and retreat landward. This can have damaging effects on local residents, or on those who use the coast for recreational activities. In the Mediterranean, beaches are sustained by sediment supplied from river deltas. Erosion can occur when less river sediment is transported to the coasts. This can occur when there has been a decrease in the frequency of major floods, catchment reforestation, dam construction, or dredging activities1.

The EU funded a project to protect coastal regions in the South of France; an area popular for tourists and local residents alike. Amongst other initiatives, which included infrastructure changes, a dune ridge was re-established to protect the beach and coastal area.

http://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/en/projects/france/preservation-of-coastal-gem

 

River adaptation to fight flash floods in Spain

The Simat region, located on the East coast of Spain, near Valenciana, is often subjected to flash flooding as it is situated between mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. Flash floods caused by heavy autumn rains burst river banks and have a devastating effect on the surrounding villages.

EU funding provided both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ flood defences for the Valenciana region. Soft river defences use natural resources and local knowledge to protect residents from flooding. A region upstream of Simet was reclaimed for flood plains and the river was widened. To complement this, a canal system (an example of a hard defence strategy) was constructed further downstream.

http://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/en/projects/spain/river-adaptation-to-fight-flash-floods

 

Energy Efficiency: Recovering heat to produce thermal energy in Greece

Increasing energy efficiency is a key objective for the European Union: there is a specific EU Directive that focuses entirely on improving energy usage. By 2020, the EU aims to have saved roughly the equivalent of 400 power stations-worth of energy2.

Florina, a city in mainland Greece, has been awarded EU funding for a project aimed to distribute unused heat energy from power stations to 23,000 local residents. Surplus heat will be piped as ‘superheated water’ to local homes and businesses. As well as improving energy efficiency, this project is expected to cut water-related greenhouse gas emissions by 88%, as hot water will no longer be heated by traditional oil and gas combustion methods.

http://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/en/projects/greece/recovering-heat-to-produce-thermal-energy

 

Improving groundwater quality in Poland

Groundwater is a lifeline to supplying Europe with freshwater. Over 300 million EU citizens get their drinking water from these subsurface water deposits. Unfortunately, groundwater can become contaminated making it unfit to be consumed, and endanger aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. This can happen when septic systems that are not connected to modern sewer systems leak bacteria, viruses, and chemicals into the environment.

An EU funded project for the Poznań region in Poland is protecting local groundwater supplies by improving wastewater treatment networks, which will benefit almost 736,000 local inhabitants. The construction of an integrated water and wastewater monitoring system helps to protect residents as well as the surrounding ecosystems.

http://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/en/projects/poland/improving-groundwater-quality-around-poznan

 

Micro-hydropower plants in the UK and Ireland

The world needs to shift to non-carbon based energy generation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The EU aims to achieve 20% energy generation from renewable sources by 2020 (2012 levels stood at 11%)3. Renewable energy sources include hydropower, geothermal, wind energy, solar energy, and biomass. Hydropower is commonly generated through dam structures, where flowing water passes through a turbine. An alternative method is to take surplus electrical energy from the grid and use it to pump water to elevated ground, therefore storing it as potential energy to be used later.

A common method within water supply systems is to use pressurised pumps to transport water to the pipeline network. Excess pressure is often vented, releasing unused energy into the atmosphere. A recently funded EU project aims to create hydro-energy from these supply systems by installing micro-hydropower plants on the ventilation valves. The generated electricity can be used to reduce conventional energy consumption. The project has been funded for regions in Wales and Ireland, however it is thought this technology could be expanded across Europe and beyond.

http://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/en/projects/europe/retrieving-water-energy-at-micro-hydropower-plants-could-pave-the-way-to-more-sustainable-water-supply-systems-in-ireland-and-wales

 

Turning copper to gold: mining in Portugal

Raw materials, including minerals and rare-earth elements, are used in infrastructure, renewable energy resources, agriculture, and telecommunications. The vast majority of these resources are imported to the EU, and very few mineral mines are located within Europe. It is important to improve the security of supply by either increasing internal supply or reducing the need for these materials.

The Alentejo region in Portugal is located on the Iberian pyrite belt, a geological zone rich in mineral deposits. Mining has occurred for many centuries and the region currently employs over 500 people. Funds have been awarded to develop the mine’s capabilities to increase its output of copper ore, whilst continuing to meet EU environmental standards.

http://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/en/projects/portugal/turning-copper-to-gold

 

Adapting water management to climate change in Denmark and Germany

Greenhouse gases absorb radiated energy from the Earth and re-radiate this as heat; raising global temperatures. This results in ice caps and glaciers melting and causes rising sea levels. Low-lying countries are now experiencing greater flooding episodes and increasing storm surges (another effect of manmade climate change). The Syddanmark region in Denmark and the Schleswig-Holstein region in Germany was awarded EU funding to assess and reduce the damage new flooding has on these areas. After discussions with professionals, politicians and members of the public, it was decided to develop a hydrological model to assess the future impacts flooding would have. The model was able to highlight where dikes should be relocated and retention areas be created to reduce negative flooding impacts. Additionally, the resulting changes showed positive biodiversity effects in these new areas from the temporary flooding.

http://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/en/projects/europe/grenzwasser-adapts-water-management-to-climate-change-requirements

 

Establishing a commercial spaceport in Sweden

Space research and exploration does more than simply try to answer overarching questions about life, the solar system, and beyond. The research and development driven by space science and exploration have led to inventions that are now used to help us in our daily lives. The ESA has a portfolio of ~450 inventions, covering areas such as optics, robotics, and electrical power. The development of the so-called “second space age” is seeing private space companies contributing to research and innovation, as well as providing opportunities for more commercial space flights.

The Kiruna region, in Northern Sweden, established an international space and research ground-station over 50 years ago. The station hosts rocket and balloon launches, satellite monitoring, new space and flight systems testing, and multiple ground-based space measurements. A project has been funded to transform the Kiruna centre into a ‘fully functioning spaceport’ to develop new products, services, research, and education.

http://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/en/projects/best-practices/sweden/2105

 

More information about EU project funding and where it is allocated can be found on the European Commission website.

 

Sources:

1 – http://www.climatechangepost.com/france/coastal-erosion/

2 – https://ec.europa.eu/energy/en/topics/energy-efficiency

3 – http://www.eea.europa.eu/soer-2015/europe/energy

 

Testing triggers of catastrophic climate change

Tipping points that could trigger catastrophic climate change via Wikimedia Commons.

Tipping points that could trigger catastrophic climate change via Wikimedia Commons.


The research presented during the EGU’s 2016 General Assembly have wide-reaching implications for how we understand planet Earth. In today’s post, Sara Mynott, an EGU press assistant during the conference, writes about findings presented at the meeting which highlight the importance of the biosphere when it comes to understanding the threat posed to our planet by environmental challenges.

With the climate changing, land use shifting and continued environmental pollution, something’s got to give. And if it does, it may well trigger catastrophic change. With so many threats to our planet’s integrity, making decisions about what environmental challenges we should tackle first is a challenge. This is why the Stockholm Resilience Centre created the planetary boundaries framework. The framework identifies key tipping points that could cause catastrophic climate change. Recent updates to the framework have identified biosphere integrity and climate change as two of the core planetary boundaries that, if crossed, could endanger human prosperity.

A lot of research has been done into the tipping points that could trigger catastrophic climate change, from large scale methane release to irreversible ice sheet melt, but one area remains profoundly overlooked. The biosphere.

“It’s very well known that the climate affects the biosphere and the biosphere affects the climate, but there’s still a large amount of uncertainty about how those two are going to interact and play out,” explains Steven Lade, a modeller at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Climate talks tend to focus around cutting CO2, but there is three times as much carbon stored in soils and vegetation than there is in the atmosphere, making the biosphere a major reservoir. By modelling interactions between the climate and the biosphere, Lade aims to find out whether biosphere degradation could trigger catastrophic climate change.

“There’s definitely enough carbon in the biosphere to cause catastrophic climate change. There’s no question about that. The question is how accessible it is, how rapidly it will be pumped out, how rapidly other feedbacks in the climate system might counteract that. The quantity is enough, but the speed and the feedbacks may help counteract that. This is why we’re trying to do a dynamical model.”

Just one small part of the biosphere. Credit: Paul via Wikimedia Commons.

Just one small part of the biosphere. Credit: Paul
via Wikimedia Commons.

Rather than predicting where these boundaries lie, Lade is looking for things that could cause catastrophic feedbacks. This means his models are relatively simple – a way of finding out what happens when you push life to its limits.  

“The point is to incorporate different assumptions about what people know, for example, about how the climate and biosphere interact and look at the consequences of those assumptions. To show, for example, whether the biosphere might be strong enough…if you stopped emitting more carbon, but degrade the biosphere heavily – could the resulting carbon emissions trigger catastrophic climate change?”

He aims to see whether those outcomes are plausible or not. It’s an interesting approach, one that will help shape decisions about we can prevent catastrophic change and let policy be put into practice.

By Sara Mynott

Sara is a science writer and marine science PhD candidate from the University of Exeter. She’s investigating the impact of climate change on predator-prey relationships in the ocean, and was one of our Press Assistants this year’s General Assembly.

 

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