Friday, August 13, 2010

Soil Media: Top Soil Stories from the 19th World Congress

So much soil! The 19th World Congress of Soil Science concluded on 6th August in Brisbane, Australia. It was my first WCSS and didn't fail to give me some great insight into some new and interesting topics. The congress focused on 'soil solutions for a changing world' and its diverse array of topics covered this issue well. With about 2000 papers, it was hard to pick my favourite sessions and talks. Here are some that I particularly enjoyed.

Will Steffen opened the theme on Climate Change and Soils with discussing the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is what he terms as the time in the Earth's history of unprecedented change to the environment as a result of humanity. In fact, Will stated that humans are currently using more than the productivity of one Earth per year - meaning we are taking more from Earth than what it produces.

Helaina Black from Scotland discussed the codependency between Scotsmen and whiskey! Not drinking, I am afraid. She stated that whiskey brings in a revenue of $1.65 billion dollars per year to the Scottish government! Helaina and her team were able to demonstrate the positives of looking after soil, and improving carbon sequestration, or alternatively face a decline in revenue from the whiskey industry (not to mention being depressed at the lack of scotch!).

Talitha Santini, from Western Australia, talked about using massive pressure cookers to destroy nasty chemicals in bauxite mine residue, and reduce environmental impact. Her colleague, Mark Tibbett, also talked about bauxite mine rehabilitation and the changes in soil carbon over time since mine closure.

Rai Kookana dared to suggest that Biochar may have some problems. His research demonstrated that biochar can bio-accumulate pesticides and herbicides. This makes me somewhat concerned about other bio-accumulates, and implications in nutrient cycling. My fears were then founded by Daniel Dempster at University of Western Australia.

Estelle Dominati discussed a three-tiered approach to valuing and assessing ecosystem services from soil: Soils, Services and Humans. Whilst, Patrick Lavelle and his team (the longest list of authors at WCSS) talked about assessing ecosystem services on a landscape level in the Amazon. Pauline Mele and her gigantic Australian team have unravelled some secrets of soil biology and function using metagenomics, or DNA of biological communities. Whilst Alan Halfen and Stephen Hasiotis came up with a novel way of tracing ant movement of soil (yes, it does involved painting and pretty colours).

I went to a whole session about Cryosols (frozen soils), which I knew nothing about. Frozen soils are well cool (pardon the pun). James Bockheim talked about the importance of cryosols, carbon storage and global warming. Did you know they hold 50% of all soil carbon world wide? Thomas Scholten then took us to the Tibetan Plateau. He also talked about carbon and nitrogen cycling and soil formation in a warming climate. Now back down south, to Antarctica. David Hopkins and his team discussed finding life and food webs in the dry valleys of Antarctica. North again, to Hokkaido, Japan and Yukiyoshi Iwata told of more positive stories regarding climate change. Increase ice melt in soils has lead to increased permeability and decreased erosion of soils in prime agricultural area.

The best fun at the Congress was definitely the session on soils in pop and modern culture. You can find this in the new book: Soil and Culture. Big congrats to Edward Landa who has found umpteen movies in which soil features. This includes the Coen Brothers films and their use of soil as a means of making the normal seem bizarre. Dominique Arroways talked about soil in comics, and his co-author A.C Richer de Forges even made a poster-comic on soils for the Congress. Excellent way to teach soils to kids! This idea was supported by Colin Campbell and his team in Ireland who have soil mascots for education. Whilst George Van Scoyoc in the USA prefers to use the internet and late night sessions to engage his Uni students. Alexandra Toland talked about soil in education and art, whilst Christian Feller discussed soil in art history. Mark Tibbett appeared again in another (!) hat. This time as a taphonomics, or looking at changes in the soil which may occur from crimes like murders; the CSI of Soil Science!

A great week at the Congress, and I learnt many new things about soil. See you all in Korea in 2014!

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