The world's soil resources are being put under increasing pressure and there is an urgent need to ensure that soils found across different landscapes continue to deliver vital goods and services for humans. In a new project a team of scientists, including from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), are now investigating how we can provide sustainable soil management practices in the face of current and future environmental change.
The goods and services which nature provides us and which we often take for granted have been termed ecosystem services. Soil ecosystem services include the physical stability and support of plants, allowing us to grow and consume crops, and the buffering and filtering of the hydrological cycle, which gives us clean water.
The project will see a collaborative team of scientists investigate how soils in different ecosystems, ranging from intensive agriculture through to extensive, semi-natural systems, support these ecosystem services, and to what extent they are able to cope with environmental pressures from climate change and human activity.
They will also look at how management might be used to improve the delivery of the vital ecosystem services provided by soils. The scientists will aim to identify which management practices will benefit the widest range of services, and where trade-offs, such as improving soil fertility but decreasing water quality, might occur.
Dr Rob Griffiths, Dr Niall McNamara and Dr Jeanette Whitaker from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology will work with scientists from Rothamsted Research, Lancaster University, the University of Aberdeen and Imperial College London on the £1.6 million project which is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council's Soils Security Programme.
Dr Rob Griffiths said, "Many of the ecosystem services provided by soils are dependent on the build-up of organic matter. It is incredible that we still don’t really understand the details of how vegetation turns into soil, and then how the soil is maintained under climate or land use change to provide us with these life-sustaining services."
"We believe the clues to understanding these processes lie in understanding the soil biodiversity, which is ultimately responsible for many of the soil services."
Understanding the role of the biota in soil processes is notoriously hard, Dr Griffiths explained, as soils and the processes that form them are tremendously diverse, being a product of geology, climate and human land use. Additionally the biota in soils are diverse and vary from place to place.
"Understanding the role of the biota in soil processes is notoriously hard as soils and the processes that form them are tremendously diverse, being a product of geology, climate and human land use" Dr Rob Griffiths, CEH
He added, "The use of new molecular tools to assess this soil biodiversity, coupled with modelling tools and a range of techniques for assessing soil processes, will allow us for the first time to examine in detail the processes underlying how soils work to deliver services across large scales, and also assess how different soils across a wide range of habitats are susceptible to future change."