Soils: Critical for understanding ecological interactions and ecosystem services
Soil is theessential resource. Terrestrial ecosystems account for more than half of global photosynthesis and for over 99% of the food people eat; we may enjoy seafood but we live off the land. It is no accident that our planet is called “Earth.” Yet this vital resource is equally called “dirt,” a word that derives from the Anglo Saxon four-letter word for excrement. The human population has reached 7 billion and continues to rise. To maintain that population we must understand and manage resources effectively. So how do we stop treating soil like dirt? Soil is complex and beautiful. Its communities and foodwebs are intertwined in the back alleys of physical structures so intricate that organic molecules that may be metabolized in minutes are instead safe for centuries. Yet, soils can be fragile, as haunted photos of the dustbowl and satellite images of brown plumes reaching out from river mouths both attest. What do we need to know about soil that will allow us to understand interactions that drive ecosystems and support ecosystem services?
Soils function because of micron-scale interactions among mineral surfaces, organic molecules, microorganisms, and plant roots. Yet, the fine patterns in which these processes play out can often be captured in broad brushstrokes. For example, a soils name—its full taxonomic classification—offers enough information to predict the vegetation and the functioning of the ecosystem present on that soil.