Controls on the stability of soils and their functioning under land use and climate change

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University of Belfast
Department Name: Sch of Biological Sciences

Abstract

Soils provide many functions for humans, including the storage of carbon and nutrient cycling, which are crucial for the production of food and mitigation of climate change. However, there is much concern that soils, and the functions that they provide, are being threatened by a range of pressures, including intensive farming methods and increased frequency of extreme climatic events, such as drought. Not only do these disturbances pose an immediate threat to the functioning of soils, but they could also impair their ability to resist and recover from further stresses that come in the future.

Our project will tackle this problem by addressing two general questions: first, what makes a soil able to withstand and recover from disturbance events, such as drought, and, second how can we use this knowledge to ensure soils can buffer disturbances in the future? These are questions that have puzzled soil scientists for many years, but so far, remain unresolved. An area that offers much promise, however, in tackling this issue is food web ecology. Food webs are the networks of interactions describing who eats whom amongst the myriad organisms within an ecosystem. And in soil, they are the engine that drives the very processes of nutrient cycling and energy flow on which the functioning of soil and the terrestrial ecosystems they support, depend. It has been proposed for many years, but so far not fully tested in soil, that simple food webs are less able to withstand and recover from disturbance events, such as drought than complex ones. We want to test this theory in soil, which harbours some of the most complex, but also sensitive, food webs on Earth. We test the idea, through experiments and models, that the ability of a soil to withstand, recover and adapt to disturbance events depends on the architecture and diversity of the soil food web, which governs the rate of transfer of nutrients and energy through the plant-soil system. We also propose that soil disturbances associated with intensive land use, such as trampling and fertiliser addition, erode the very food web structures that make the soil system stable, thereby reducing the ability of soil to resist and recover from future disturbances, such as extreme weather events. We will also resolve what makes a food web stable, and test the roles of different types of organisms in soil, such as mycorrhizal fungi, which we believe play a major role. And finally, we will develop new models to help us better predict how soils will respond to future threats and to guide management decisions on sustainable soil management in a rapidly changing world.

These question are at the heart of the NERC Soil Security programme which seeks to resolve what controls the ability of soils and their functions to resist, recover and ultimately adapt, to perturbations, such as those caused by land use and extreme climatic events.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from our research?

Project beneficiaries will include the bioscience, ecology and wider scientific research community interested in sustainable and productive food production. Key stakeholders include landowners, farmers groups (e.g. NFU, SNFU, NFUW, HCC, EBLEX, QMS, Soil Association), societies (BES, BSSS), conservation bodies (Plant Life, The Grassland Trust, British Grassland Society, Wildlife Trusts) and local and national government departments (Defra; EA) and agencies (SEPA; EA, Natural England; Countryside Council for Wales, Scottish Natural Heritage) who will benefit as science supported policy develops. We will liaise with BSSS and the Global Soil Partnership to ensure our project goals are integrated into the planned activities for International Year of Soils 2015.
Other beneficiaries are commercial organisations involved in habitat restoration, in particular, horticultural businesses that supply native seed and seed mixes. These businesses stand to benefit from our research through learning (via knowledge exchange; KE) how drought, land management and soil conditions influences communities to resist and recover from the effects of climate change. These organisations also have a financial interest in being able to produce seed mixtures that are stress resistant, and that are more likely to result in habitat restoration that remains successful over the long-term.

It will be vital that our findings are communicated to non-academics and non-researchers within the plant breeding community and end-users. Engagement with these groups will be facilitated though two stakeholder workshops, and through interaction with the Cool Farm Alliance, an umbrella organisation that liaises with numerous businesses with interests in agricultural-related matters. We will also showcase our findings and portfolio of expertise through presentations to farmers groups, building on our existing network forums, public talks and online resources (e.g. You Tube).

How will they benefit from our research?
Data generated in this project will have major implications for our potential to alter soil C and N cycling through land management. A key component of the work is the integration of empirical data with predictive models: this opens up opportunities to gain rapid insight into how specific environmental and edaphic contexts may affect the ability of soils to resist, recover and adapt to perturbations such as drought. Our work will open up the possibility for input of our mechanistic framework into farm management systems, aimed at, for example, coupling enhanced/sustained yields (cf food security) with C storage potential and mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.

Members of the general public will benefit through (i) an enhanced awareness of climate impacts on biodiversity, (ii) increased knowledge of the role of natural ecosystems in providing valuable goods and services to humanity, and (iii) the role of science in improving the conservation and management of grassland ecosystems and in underpinning our understanding of how the landscape can function for our collective benefit.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Title Belowground visions of life - paintings 
Description 50 paintings created in the framework of an artist in residence grant funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The artist has shadowed us in the lab and painted around the theme of the importance of soil life for humans. 
Type Of Art Artwork 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact two exhibitions, the artwork has generated a project aiming to translate the content of the painiting into a Children's book 
 
Title The Muckers: Belowground visions of life - book 
Description An illustrated children book derived from the output, ideas and concepts developed during a Leverhulme Trust funded Artist in Residence grant "Belowground Visions of Life: Soil Makes Art" 
Type Of Art Creative Writing 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact The book is at the manuscript stage and is now ready to be presented to publishers and wider public. The plan is to introduce it to the primary school curriculum 
 
Description Major first results have shown that extreme climatic events such as drought strongly interact with land use. That means that the impact of an extreme drought is context dependent and depends on the intensity of land use. Also, extreme climatic events increase the spatial and temporal variability of key ecosystem properties, which is very important to improve our predictions of how extreme climatic perturbations will in the future alter soil functioning.
Exploitation Route This will be clearer when the finding of the project will have been published but one obvious way is through the modelling component of the grant, which allows estimating energy fluxes and their variation under disturbance regime. Potentially, simple aggregated measurements (for example, total soil respiration) can be taken in the field and monitored over time. The model will be able to predict anomalous temporal patterns in soil respiration, which might give early signal of soil food web disruption.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

URL https://www.soilsecurity.org/category/controls-on-stability-of-soils/
 
Description So far, we have used material from the project to illustrate soil biodiversity and its roles in ecosystem. We have contributed to a number of events including the major NERC initiative UnEarthed (http://unearthed.nerc.ac.uk/), which took place on 17-19 Nov 2017 at Dynamic Earth (Edinburgh) and was broadcasted by the BBC, and the Royal Society summer science exhibition last July 2018 in London. We have also contributed to the Balmoral Show in Northern Ireland, which is the largest agricultural fair.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

 
Title archived samples for future molecular analyses 
Description Samples from a large manipulative field experiments have been archived at -80 C for future high throughput sequencing of microbial and animal DNA 
Type Of Material Biological samples 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This is an unprecedented experiment that can lead to a deep understanding of the dynamic of biological communities under land use management and extreme climatic event (e.g., drought and flood) 
 
Title A glasshouse experiment with soil mesocosms subjected to combinations of flood and drought perturbation 
Description An experiment in the field investigating the interactions between mechanical disturbance and N fertilization 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Data collection completed, data analysis completed. Data and specimens available for further analysis 
 
Title Drought & Flood experiment on intact grassland cores 
Description An experiment with soil mesocosms subjected to combinations of flood and drought perturbation 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2016 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This experiment is returning results that for the first time show how the effect of one extreme climatic perturbation (e.g., drought) may depend on the effects of a previous extreme climatic event of a different nature (e.g., flood vs. drought). Paper is expected to be ready for submission by the end of 2017 
 
Title Glasshouse experiment 
Description Data from a glasshouse experiment conducted on soil intact cores. The cores were extracted from field plots that have already received two experimental treatments: a mechanical perturbation and N fertilization. The experiment investigates the response of soil biota and functions to drought and flood and in relation to the potential legacy left from the field treatments. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Data collection now completed, data analysis almost completed. There is evidence of interactions between treatments for arthropods but not for nematodes. The specimens have been archived and can be used for further studies (for example, increasing taxonomic resolution of analysis). 
 
Title Large scale drought experiment 
Description A database consisting of more than 1000 data points for the distribution of nematode functional groups and arthropod functional groups. These data describe the response of soil animal food webs to drought, land use, and how spatial variability in soil food webs affect this response. The data allows to estimate the recovery of soil animal food webs from the perturbation caused by drought. The data are also informing a large food web model analysis to estimate energy fluxes, stability and resilience of food web 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This unique database offers an unprecedented opportunity to model soil food webs dynamics emerging from a manipulative experiment that simulates extreme drought event across Great Britain (Scotland, Yorkshire Dale, Devon), grassland management (intensive vs. extensive), and a number of location (spatial variations at multiple scales). 
 
Title Soil Food web model 
Description A soil food web model programmed in MatLab to analyse results from the Flood and Drought experiment currently in progress 
Type Of Material Computer model/algorithm 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact The model offers a dynamical understanding of the responses of soil food web to impacts such as flood and drought and, most important, the combinations of these perturbations. The model will be published soon 
 
Description Resistance to perturbation in agricultural land: Can we identify and fingerprint functional soil conditions across scales 
Organisation Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I will offer material and data collected in the framework of Controls on the stability of soils, and will contribute to publication output
Collaborator Contribution Partners will offer access to data and opportunity to develop data analysis and models that will lead to co-author publications
Impact collaboration has just started
Start Year 2017
 
Description Belowground Vision of Life: Soil makes Art 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An exhibition of artwork conducted in the framework of an artist in residence grant funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The artist has shadowed us in the lab, and created a number of artworks themed around the importance of soil life for humans. The artwork is to be exhibited on April the 1st at the Ulster Museum of Belfast
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://nmni.com/um/What-s-on/Events/Below-Ground-Visions-of-Life--Soil-makes-Art
 
Description Canned Ecology 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This is a program of outreach funded by NERC for the NERC 50th anniversary. We have had two event: an open day at Stormont, where the Northern Ireland parliament is; Slieve Gullion, a natural park for families. We have a trailer with mobile touch tank and mobile insect viewers for members of the public to get a closer look at the smaller things that live in soil and aquatic habitats.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Northern Ireland Balmoral Show 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The largerst agricultural fair in Northern Ireland, demonstrating soil biodiversity with microscopes, cameras, and artworks themed around soil.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Outreach: Northern Ireland Balmoral Show 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The largerst agricultural fair in Northern Ireland, we displayed an exhibition on soil biodiverisity and informed the general public about the impact of our research project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description UnEarthed - Explore the world at your feet - NERC 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An outreach event at the Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh, informing on all NERC research themed around dynamic lithosphere processes, including belowground organisms. We presented an exhibition from the Soil Security Programme (soil biodiverisity and the importance of soil in our lives).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://unearthed.nerc.ac.uk/