A couple months ago I boarded an Air National Guard plane on the ice runway near McMurdo Station and the Dry Valley Desert of Antarctica where I work for about a month each year. After 35 hours and two flights I arrived home in Colorado. Having done this more than two dozen times I’m still struck by the contrasts. Antarctica is silent except for the wind. The only colors are white, grey and the blue of the ice and sky. Denver airport, on the other hand, is bustling, colorful and crowded.
What both places do have in common is that they – like all places on Earth – have a fragile balance of life. While the dominant species that I study in the desert lands of Antarctica lives underground and fits by the thousands in my cupped hands, it is no less impressive than the bears of the Rockies. Indeed, the soil where these and other creatures live is finally having its day in the sun (so to speak)—we are recognizing that the life and complex ecosystems that exist beneath our feet are vital to the health of our planet and our people.
Over the last few decades there has been a growing understanding among scientists, farmers and some policymakers that soil does more than just grow plants. Healthy soil cleans water, feeds humans, impedes the spread of deserts, and stores carbon that would otherwise contribute to climate change. Soil organisms in healthy soils can even prevent the spread of some diseases.
Soil ecosystems are wildly different around the world and each of these different networks fascinates me. For more than 25 years I’ve watched my very favorite soil dweller Scottnema lindsayae (or the “Rambo nematode,” as I prefer to call it) in an epic battle for dominance in the seemingly barren deserts of Antarctica. People often wonder how I could watch this microscopic drama play out over a quarter century, but we would never know the profound impacts of climate change on these soils if we hadn’t been watching. The lessons from this roundworm that lives in one of the most challenging climates matters to us because we’ve learned so much from it about the fragility of the world below us.
Around the world, climate change is exacerbating the consequences of unhealthy soil. In the United States, more people in the southwest are suffering from a disease called Valley Fever, which is caused by a fungus living in the soil that becomes airborne as the soil dries. In Kenya, where I also conduct research, deserts are expanding, which leads to further challenges feeding and supporting Kenyans.
Whether you are seeing less fertile land, more droughts or new soil-borne diseases, soil is impacting your life. The consequences of neglected or poorly managed soil vary depending on where you live because soil – and the life within it – is vastly different around the world. The soil life under Denver is very different from the soil life in Delhi.
Soils – and their biodiversity – are changing. Thankfully, policymakers around the world, with the European Commission at the forefront, have started to factor this knowledge into environmental policies. The agenda now should be to map which soil species live where and how they will respond to climate change. Working without this kind of understanding of soils around the planet would be like trying to save the panda without knowing where it lives.
The mission of the Global Soil Biodiversity Initiative my colleagues and I have launched is to document and map the world’s soil dwelling species. Often we can’t see them with the naked eye and you won’t see them on posters or in zoos, but to us they’re just as remarkable as any other animal. It’s not until we know what lives where below ground that we can do everything possible to protect, manage and preserve the underground bestiary that plays such an outsized role in our lives, from our diet to our climate to our health.
As my lab continues to sift through the soil from our latest research from Antarctica, it’s time for us all to get our hands dirty in understanding the world below ground and protecting this valuable biodiversity. While ecologists keep studying soil, take a moment to be grateful for the unseen work of millions of species beneath your feet.