DURHAM, NC – Increased human impacts are transforming Earth’s soils, and the field of soil science must transform itself to keep pace, write two widely cited scientists in a thought-provoking essay that appears this month in the online edition of the Soil Science Society of America Journal.

“Soil science today is seriously challenged by new economic and environmental demands placed on soils, and also by the changing role that soil plays in the environment,” says Daniel deB. Richter, professor of soils and forest ecology at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

“In our essay, we argue that although the contemporary model of soil appears well positioned to help provide the growing human population with a more stable, healthy and resilient environment, there is much room for improvement and none for complacency,” he says.

Richter and Dan H. Yaalon of the Institute of Earth Sciences at Hebrew University wrote their essay, “The Changing Model of Soil Revisited,” to commemorate and update a landmark essay published in 1961 by the influential soil scientist Marlin C. Cline.

“Cline was moved to write about how changing human demands and emerging new technologies and knowledge at the start of the Sixties was changing the Earth’s soil as a natural body, particularly in terms of our increasingly sophisticated views of how soils are formed,” Richter says.  “Our aim was to revisit Cline’s insights from the perspective of the early 21st century, and take stock of how soil models today are changing – and still need to change – to meet contemporary needs and challenges.”

Richter and Yaalon note that three ongoing changes in the genetic model of soil will likely have far-reaching consequences for the future of soil science and its ability to help humanity meet its ever-increasing needs sustainably.  These changes are that soil is being transformed globally from a natural body to a human-natural body; that the lower boundary of soil extends very deeply, sometimes to tens of meters; and that most soils are polygenetic, that is, they retain the footprints and imprints of the wide range of soil-forming processes that have shaped them over their long lifetimes.

“In other words, we now see that human interactions with soil transform its physical, chemical and biological properties and processes, both at a local level and in the wider environment,” Richter explains.  “And we also understand that as human-natural systems, soils have long memories of past impacts, and that these memories accumulate over time.”

While scientists have many scientific approaches at their disposal to investigate these human impacts on soils, Richter and Yaalon believe there are still major opportunities for using one of the oldest and most traditional of approaches in soil science – that of the long-running soil field experiment. An efficiently operated network of these long-term experiments, aimed squarely at improving soil and land management, can accelerate sustainable co-existence of humans and the Earth, and help assure the future of soil science itself, they argue.

The stakes couldn’t be higher.

“If in the coming decades, expanding demands for food and related products and services overwhelm soil’s capabilities, the future will involve painful societal adjustments and environmental degradation,” Richter says.  “If, however, we are able to feed the world and improve soil’s management, that would benefit not only humans, soils and the wider environment, but perhaps even the character of humanity as well.”

You can read Richter and Yaalon’s full essay here >

Note: Daniel Richter can be reached for additional comment at drichter@duke.edu.