Introducing the International Year of Soils

2015 is the International Year of Soils and throughout the year we’ll be highlighting CEH research on soils. To kick off I’ve been speaking to staff working on two of our key soil science projects. Here’s what they had to say:

Dr David Robinson is based at our Bangor site in north Wales. He’s worked extensively on soil physics and soil monitoring, and his career has taken him all over the world, starting at CEH’s site in Wallingford in the 1990s and completing a PhD and then working in Israel, the USA and the West Indies, before returning to CEH in 2009.

In recent years David has jointly led CEH’s input into the mySoil project with Bridget Emmett, an app which gives members of the public access to a comprehensive European soil properties map. As well as discovering what lies beneath their feet, users help build a community dataset by submitting their own soil information. David also takes a keen interest in how soil property change is assessed at the regional to global scale.

Dr David Robinson inspects his soil samples

David told me, “The problem is that much of our soil survey data is both old and static in time. At national scales our understanding of how soils are responding to climate and land use drivers of change is limited. We need to think carefully about the type of soils data we collect, and the design of monitoring schemes to capture soil change.”

In a recent letter to Science (Science 347, 6218; 2015) David argued for prioritisation of ‘soil change’ assessment at regional to global scales. He told me, “Understanding the impacts of climate and environmental change is vital to human social and economic well being. This is not to diminish the importance of rare soils research, but simply to acknowledge that their identification is not currently the highest priority for soil science within environmental change research.”

Dr Jonathan Evans is based at our Wallingford site in Oxfordshire. He’s the technical lead on the COSMOS-UK project, a new network that is delivering real-time weather monitoring and field scale measurements of soil moisture across the United Kingdom.

Jonathan told me, “The health of our soils is something that we take for granted but it has a profound effect on our environment – not only what we see and our enjoyment of its beauty, but also in our climate and weather systems, through complex interactions between the air and the land surface.”

He added, “COSMOS-UK has great potential to transform hydro-meteorological modelling, for example for flood and drought prediction, by providing continuous field measurements to test and improve national weather and flood forecast models. Using the new technology of cosmic-ray soil moisture sensing, our measurements are representative of areas up to 700m in diameter – this is really useful to average the highly variable soil moisture over a scale relevant for water resource, flood and climate modelling, and for comparison with satellite remote sensing of soil moisture.”

Webcam image from the COSMOS site at Moor HouseThe COSMOS-UK project website is a mine of information on the project including a great description of the technical details (and challenges) behind measuring soil moisture using the cosmic-ray technique.

Jonathan and project co-workers David Boorman and Lucy Ball were recently interviewed for BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science programme. The interview was first broadcast on 15 January 2015 and is available to listen to again online.

Additional information

COSMOS UK

International Year of Soils 2015

CEH's soil science infographics and videos

CEH's Soil Science Area

Listen again: BBC Radio 4 Inside Science

Science areas: