Monte Verita (Ascona- Switzerland) - 14-18, April 2013

Description of the conference

General topic, its state of the art and international importance

Soil serves as central biogeochemical-hydrological interface domain and is considered the most biologically active compartment of the biosphere hosting unparalleled biodiversity. There is growing recognition for the need to integrated soil, as a scientific discipline, into contemporary cross-disciplinary initiatives that address the most pressing global challenges, ranging from climate change to food security and from sustainable land and water resources to improved ecosystem functioning. An important first step requires increased awareness and actively strengthening ties with related disciplines including ecology, atmospheric science, biogeochemistry, hydrology, geological sciences, among others. This trans-disciplinary expansion of soil science context is essential for addressing global and societal challenges. Integration of soil-related issues in contemporary scientific initiatives hinges on identification of significant science questions. The conference would focus on soil-relevant to global interdisciplinary themes, including Climate Change, Food Security and Biofuel Production, Water and Land Resources, Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity, Global Biogeochemcial Cycles, and Earth Observatories. We posit that these societal scientific challenges cannot be addressed effectively without the fundamental links that soil processes provide.

The critical zone is defined as the Earth’s outer layer, extending from vegetation canopy to the soil and groundwater that sustains life on earth. The evolving and broader context of soil science is derived from the array of functions and critical services provided by soils that both include and transcend food production:

Soil scientists world-wide have been life-long and active members of related professional sister societies such as ASA, AGU, GSA, ESA, EGU, and IUSS, illustrating the transition of soil science from the narrow, agricultural context to a multi-disciplinary science. By way of this proposed conference, we seek to further integrate soil science into related disciplines, toward a more rigorous and strategic path that ensures a strong and relevant discipline in the future. This trans-disciplinary expansion to explicitly include soil science and soil processes is urgently needed to solve many of the challenging questions associated with the complex global change issues facing today’s society. Through this expansion, the soil science discipline will sustain itself by remaining relevant as a vital tool for solving earth system questions, and by recruiting future soil science professionals who must operate and collaborate within broader intellectual settings than needed or expected in the past

Key topics and focus of the conference

The Conference focuses on six interdisciplinary themes, each involving a significant soil component, with most themes interconnected. For example, climate change requires attention from an unprecedented range of scientific disciplines, including physical sciences, engineering, ecology and natural resources, biology, human and animal health, and social sciences. From a societal perspective, the nexus of food security, water resources and energy, mandates a broad-based and integrated problem-solving approach, one that focuses research on key disciplinary interfaces connected through a common set of objectives. Many of these key challenges facing society require special attention to soils and soil processes. Hence, for the purpose of this Conference, we place SOILS in the center, as a means to more clearly identify the inter-related contemporary environmental and societal issues. Through synergetic discussion we will focus on improving the science by inclusion of appropriate components of basic soil science across these interdisciplinary themes. Specific questions may include:

  1. Which dynamic soil processes are relevant and must be considered when defining land surface-climate interactions towards improved climate modeling and assessment of changing climate impacts?
  2. How can fundamental understanding of soil processes be applied towards increasing food production in a constraining environment of limited natural resources (land, water) and changing climate?
  3. Considering the central role of soil as the most biologically active compartment of the earth terrestrial biosphere, which essential soil processes must be understood to minimize loss of ecosystem functions of natural and man-made (agro) ecosystems in a changing world?
  4. Whereas the focus of remote and terrestrial land observing systems is largely on or near the soil surface, could the value of these relatively expensive platforms be increased if observations are routinely coupled with soil processes that connect with subsurface and unobservable domains (groundwater, deep vadose zone) and above land surface (vegetation, atmosphere)?

Climate Change: Regardless of the causes, consequences of climate change for water resources and ecosystems, both natural and agricultural, and human health and activities will be profound. Major scientific gaps are leading to high uncertainty, thereby limiting our ability to predict the magnitude of climate change impacts on agricultural production, natural ecosystems, water resources, human activities and health. Soil processes play an important role in defining fluxes of water vapor into the lower atmosphere by soil evaporation and plant transpiration. Much uncertainty remains about soil-climate connections, such as the coupling and feedbacks between atmospheric temperature, cloud formation and soil moisture, as the soil evaporative and plant transpiration processes are mostly empirically defined in climatic models. Moreover, the impacts of changing climatic conditions on greenhouse gas (GHG) production by soil biological activities, such as by soil N2O and methane fluxes are insufficiently understood. Specific attention includes the potential GHG contributions by wetland and frozen soils under changing temperature regimes.

Food Security and Biofuel Production: Current trends indicate that population growth is outpacing food production in 64 of 105 developing countries. To meet increasing food demands will require radical changes in the way food is produced, stored, distributed, and accessed to meet expected food security requirements – availability, stability, quality, accessibility and utilization. The limited availability of fresh water resources and arable land and their imbalanced geographic distribution prevents agricultural expansion as occurred during the Green Revolution. The range of potential strategies to increase food production without increasing land area must focus primarily on closing the so-called yield gap. This will require changing soil and water management practices, increasing nutrient and water use efficiencies, in addition to developing more productive crop genotypes and improved crop management strategies. The issue of food security is further complicated by a shift toward biofuel production, competing with water and land resources, and by implications of climatic change on agricultural productivity. Clearly, stress on soil resources through land use change could become entangled with sustainable energy security (through carbon balance and emission control policies) and a public agenda promoted primarily by developed economies.

Water and Land Resources: Irrigated agriculture presently amounts to nearly 70% of fresh water withdrawals (rivers, lakes, aquifers), globally. Whereas currently about 15% of agriculture is irrigated, it produces about 45 % of the global food production. Despite typically high irrigation efficiencies (70% or higher), its contribution to closing the yield gap would be limited and varies among geographical regions. Instead, with rain-fed irrigation occupying about 80% of all cropland, increasing productivity of rain-fed agricultural systems will become more critical. Also, evaluating the impacts of limited water and land resources on agriculture and progressing toward a system of sustainable irrigated agriculture requires a holistic approach that intersects soil processes and water resources. For example, this includes using soil as a filtering mechanism for water-recycling processes such as for treating waste water and introducing less water intensive crop species. Changes in availability and use of water and land use will impact species health and distribution, terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem function, and the economic and social fabric of civilization, while further complicated by uncertainty and risks as caused by projected climatic change. Thus, there is a clear need for new and more water-use efficient-management strategies, while maintaining or increasing land use functionality.

Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity: The 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report (http://www.maweb.org/en/index.aspx) provides an in depth assessment of potential consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being. The role and function of soil in most aspects of production ecology and conservation biology are prominent; however, these connections are obscured by the large inherent variability of environmental conditions. Specifically, natural resources such as rivers, soils, aquifers, wetlands and other landscape elements can be regarded as key components of an ‘ecological infrastructure’ that supports the continuing delivery of ecosystem services. Even outside of intensive food production, healthy ecosystems provide substantial water filtering and storage capacities, moderate weather extremes, and provide necessary “homes” to bio-diverse ecological communities upon which humans interact. Scenario analyses have suggested that feeding the world is possible without further encroachment of agriculture into natural ecosystems. However, soil resources need to be considered as an integral part of the complicated human systems that include demography, socio-economy, and governance.

Global Biogeochemical Cycles: Soil plays a critical role in storage and generation of fluxes of the primary biogeochemical cycles, including carbon and nitrogen cycles. Better understanding issues related to food security and climate change, and connecting between human activities and natural resources require us to better link soil biological processes. As an example, the potential thawing of large tracts of Arctic soils and accelerated release of stored carbon and other greenhouse gases (e.g., nitrous oxide) presents a case study of using soil science as a resource to jointly develop mitigation strategies for the general well-being of the planet. Moreover, these shifts could be harnessed to address some of the issue linked with food security and offset some of the adverse impacts of other changes (e.g., water quality, land degradation, acidification, etc.)

Earth Observatories: Rapid advances in sensor technologies and remote sensing, and the growing awareness and need to make informed decisions concerning our environment, have created an unprecedented interest in earth observing platforms ranging from space-borne measurement satellites (SMOS, SMAP) to deployment of large ecohydrological observatories (LTER, CZO, NEON, TERENO) to track fluxes of water and nutrients in natural and agro ecosystems. These trends are presently reinforced with the various climate–related protocols requiring streams of data for accountability (e.g., to update the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment), thus requiring measurement-based assessments of ecosystem health and services. Many of these efforts relate to monitoring land surface and land surface processes, including state variables such as soil moisture, and vegetation characteristics, their associated fluxes (e.g., soil evaporation, plant transpiration, photosynthesis and respiration), as well as processes such as climatic change impacts on hydrology and ecosystem functioning. In all of these monitoring programs, their applications will be limited if soil processes are excluded.

Main objectives of the conference and importance for scientific co-operation

The proposed conference provides for a leading scientific forum with the following main objectives: (1) delineating the scientific questions and the required linkages between soil function and contemporary environmental and societal challenges and services; (2) establishing a road-map for transforming and integrating soil science into key Earth Science disciplines; and (3) establishing cross-disciplinary links and platforms for scientific exchange.

With the primary goal of this conference to define the core interdisciplinary themes, about half of the conference participation will come from science leaders and organizations that represent the thematic areas defined in section 4.1.2. We are convinced that the increased cross-disciplinary discussions by way of the proposed Conference will strengthen interactions with funding agencies and global scientific initiatives, thereby facilitating a larger role of soil science in developing research priorities of global and societal importance.

Expected scientific impact resulting from the conference

This workshop will pave the way for closing scientific gaps due to incomplete and superficial consideration of soil processes and enable soil scientists to more significantly contribute to contemporary societal challenges and to the promotion of Life and Earth Sciences. Additionally, the proposed workshop provides an unique opportunity for interactions leading to broader awareness and clearer understanding of critical functions and services of soils as part of Earth System Sciences as defined under 4.1.1. If funded, the proposed Conference will provide a rare opportunity to formalize this new direction of soil science, thereby planting the seed for sustained cross-disciplinary partnerships. The Conference Advisory Committee will synthesize the major outcomes and recommendations in a white paper, to be published in various professional society outlets. A potential outcome of the conference would be to galvanize partnerships between leaders in soil science and their ‘new’ partners, toward developing a Gordon Conference proposal with a similar title, forming a high profile and sustainable forum for high-quality scientific interactions between the science leaders of the future.

Success will result in measurable outcomes that will include: (1) better understanding by the scientific community, stakeholders and policy makers that soil science is inherently relevant; (2) enhanced emphasis on soil science by the educational institutions who are training the next generation of scientists; and (3) improved funding opportunities to exploit and strengthen scientific applications of soil processes across multiple disciplines.