Long-Term Soil Experiments: A Key to Managing Earth's Rapidly Changing Critical Zones

Monday, 15 December 2014: 11:20 AM
Daniel Richter Jr, Duke University, Nicholas School of the Environment, Durham, NC, United States
In a few decades, managers of Earth's Critical Zones (biota, humans, land, and water) will be challenged to double food and fiber production and diminish adverse effects of management on the wider environment. To meet these challenges, an array of scientific approaches is being used to increase understanding of Critical Zone functioning and evolution, and one amongst these approaches needs to be long-term soil field studies to move us beyond black boxing the belowground Critical Zone, i.e., to further understanding of processes driving changes in the soil environment. Long-term soil experiments (LTSEs) provide direct observations of soil change and functioning across time scales of decades, data critical for biological, biogeochemical, and environmental assessments of sustainability; for predictions of soil fertility, productivity, and soil–environment interactions; and for developing models at a wide range of temporal and spatial scales. Unfortunately, LTSEs globally are not in a good state, and they take years to mature, are vulnerable to loss, and even today remain to be fully inventoried. Of the 250 LTSEs in a web-based network, results demonstrate that soils and belowground Critical Zones are highly dynamic and responsive to human management. The objective of this study is to review the contemporary state of LTSEs and consider how they contribute to three open questions: (1) can soils sustain a doubling of food production in the coming decades without further impinging on the wider environment, (2) how do soils interact with the global C cycle, and (3) how can soil management establish greater control over nutrient cycling. While LTSEs produce significant data and perspectives for all three questions, there is on-going need and opportunity for reviews of the long-term soil-research base, for establishment of an efficiently run network of LTSEs aimed at sustainability and improving management control over C and nutrient cycling, and for research teams that provide for generation to generation transfer of new and historic LTSEs.