Despite Sheldon Cooper’s references to geologists as ‘the dirt people’*, geologists are not usually associated in the public mind with soil. Most of the planet’s soil is no older than the Pleistocene (2.58 million – 11,700 years ago) – surely geologists are concerned with much older, much rockier stuff than this?
A look at the make-up of our Fellowship, however, suggests Sheldon might not have been so far off the mark – probably around 30-40% of our Fellows work in some way with soils, and the UK’s more than 700 soil types are all determined, among other things, by variations in the underlying geology.
Recently, we submitted a response to the Environmental Audit Committee’s enquiry on soil health, highlighting some of the important things soil does for us. We also outlined the reasons why the government should introduce monitoring of soil health.
- Read our full response here
The role of soil
Soils have an important role in many environmental processes and are key to many of society’s biggest challenges – from natural hazards to climate change.
The most visible role of soil is one which has been important since humans began inhabiting the Earth. Crop yield is usually related to the nutrient content of soils – so healthy soil is vital to food production. As the population rises, so do concerns about availability of soils.
One of soil’s most vital roles is to absorb rainfall. Without this ability, flooding events can be worse – and more flooding means more erosion of soil, so the effects are worsened even further.
Soil is a huge store of carbon – carbon content can range from around 1% in sandy soil, to 40% in peat. As an important component of the carbon cycle, any disruption in soil quality or quantity could have significant environmental effects.
Recent work by soil scientists has found that urban soils can make better carbon sinks than rural soils, due to the calcium from building materials such as cement dust and lime combining in solution with carbonate.
Back in 2013, our President David Manning explained this process during a meeting of the British Science Association – listen to the podcast below…
After rainfall, water percolates through soil on its way to aquifers, rivers and plant roots. In this way, soil quality can affect the content of our water supply – any contamination by construction, fertilizer use or pollution can find its way into our drinking water and affect our health.
Soil provides a foundation for much of our infrastructure – from houses and factories to roads and railways. Because soil properties vary from place to place, it is important to have a good understanding of individual types, and what will affect them, before carrying out any construction work.
Despite how vital healthy soil is to so many aspects of our lives, there is currently no national monitoring programme in the UK. We monitor air and water quality- so why not soil?
The World Soil Charter describes the current status of soils as reaching ‘critical limits’. Widespread desertification and erosion, pollution caused by processes like mining and fertilizer use, and intensive farming are all threatening soil health.
Monitoring can help identify whether soil quality is degrading over time and what factors may be contributing to this – climate change, for example. It could provide early warnings of the effects of changes to land use and other factors – information which could then be used to help manage our soil resources sustainably, and to guide future policies.
As our submission to the enquiry says, ‘Soil is a key part of the support system for life on Earth, and its conservation imperative to living sustainably and equitably. Soil is a finite and non-renewable resources, and effective measuring and monitoring is key to understanding and preserving it.’
So, perhaps geologists don’t mind being called ‘the dirt people’ after all.
- To read more about the government’s soil health enquiry, visit the enquiry’s website.*The Big Bang Theory, Warner Bros. Television