Frontiers in soil ecology

Story accompanying the new paper Eisenhauer et al. (2022) Frontiers in soil ecology—Insights from the World Biodiversity Forum 2022.

There was an almost tangible sense of urgency at the World Biodiversity Forum in Davos, last June. A string of the world’s experts on biodiversity research gathered there under a pleasant mountain sun to discuss the state of and – perhaps even more important – the way forward for our biodiversity in a world under pressure from all sides. A story significantly grimmer than the sunny landscape!

I joined the session on soil biodiversity, that subset of biodiversity hiding underneath our feet and therefore even more obscure than the plants and animals we see aboveground. The consensus of that session was cloudy, yet with clear rays of that sun still shining through: our understanding of soil biodiversity, its drivers, and functioning is rapidly increasing, although there is still a long, long way to go.

To make that long road ahead more concrete for scientists and policymakers alike, we decided to take a step back, have a good thorough discussion and write down the main issues in front of us. The result of that effort is now published in the Journal of Sustainable Agriculture and Environment, summarizing the eight most urgent frontiers in global soil biodiversity to urge the international scientific community to help tackle them.

So what are these big tasks to tackle urgently? They range from 1) data integration, building on the recent splurge of global databases and products to create better integration of soil biodiversity monitoring across the globe, over 2) the mechanistic understanding of soil biodiversity (causal inference) to 3) the creation of more accurate scenarios of soil biodiversity in an uncertain future and 4) the increased understanding of other aspects of biodiversity (traits, genetic diversity, hidden diversity)…

They include 5) the need for better global data on drivers of soil biodiversity (from microclimate to heavy metals in the soil) and 6) the call for increased global collaboration and exchange of knowledge, e.g. surrounding the precious and rare taxonomic knowledge of many obscure soil species groups.

Finally, they highlighted 7) the need for the application of our increasing knowledge in conservation and 8) improved communication of our knowledge – and needs – to public and policy to get to that final and most critical step: actually protecting that soil biodiversity before it is lost.

These eight frontiers will need to be overcome in the near future to ensure the conservation of soils for the next generations. Critical, as with the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1937):‘The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself’.

Soils have unfortunately long been neglected and only now our understanding of – and enthusiasm for – them is making a comeback. Indeed, the significance of soils has now moved more and more into the scientific focus, finally changing from a niche topic with many specialized journals and conferences to a mainstream topic in ecology, earth‐system sciences, and nature conservation over the last two decades.

Let’s keep it there, where it belongs!

The Swiss mountains, home to a fabulous diversity of landscapes and soils
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