Topsoil and Climate Change: Seriously, You Should Care About Dirt

I feel pretty passionately about dirt, because it’s awesome and important stuff. Rich, nutritious, delicious dirt is what grows the crops I eat, and the flowers I like to look at, and the trees that provide habitat for animals I love. Dirt is the fundamental underpinning of life on Earth, and that makes it critically important. Everyone should care about dirt, even if they don’t personally want to get dirty.

Topsoil loss worldwide has been accelerating rapidly, for a number of different reasons. We’re losing topsoil because we’re farming more intensively and aggressively to meet growing nutritional needs. These practices also contribute to desertification, and because of the growing pressures on agricultural producers, it’s getting harder to find new land to use for farming, and to rotate land responsibly to ensure that soil isn’t completely stripped.

We also lose topsoil to mining, logging, and industrial activities. It’s depleted, trashed with chemicals, or lost through rivers and streams that eventually carry it to the ocean, where it slowly settles to the bottom. Along the way, it changes light levels, impacts marine life, and creates algal blooms because of the sudden flood of nutrients, which can significantly disrupt marine ecosystems. The loss of topsoil creates a chain reaction that spreads, and spreads, and spreads. Once it starts, it is extremely difficult to put in check.

Recent research also indicates that it may play a role in climate change, which is extremely bad news. Loss of topsoil can limit carbon capture and storage in the soil, and when that soil is lost, that carbon has to go somewhere. It takes a long time to build up deposits of carbon in the soil, as they involve a complex series of factors and they can’t be hurried along. Some indigenous people historically used land management practices that actually facilitated carbon capture in addition to enriching the soil, particularly in the Amazon, as studies on rainforest soil have indicated. Today, conventional agriculture runs rough over precious stores of locked carbon in the soil, contributing to rapid erosion and the release of that carbon into the environment.

The top metre of the Earth’s soil stores approximately three times the current amount of atmospheric carbon. When soil starts to break down, it releases carbon dioxide, which enters the atmosphere and contributes to the greenhouse effect. As soil breaks down, the process tends to start to accelerate; erosion gets faster and faster, releasing more and more CO2 and causing the loss of nutrients that could have been used both by crops and plants in the natural environment. These processes are being put on fast-forward by farming practices that do not consider long term soil health and don’t incorporate conditioning and sustainability into soil management.

Dirt is a precious resource, and it needs to be treated like one. The famous blue marble pictures from NASA have always struck me not just because of the world’s oceans, spreading across the surface in a reminder of how unique and fragile the Earth is, but also the continents, looking surprisingly lush and green when shot from such a distance. They’re covered in a rich layer of earth that sustains life and creates life and also contributes directly to our climate, the conditions that make it possible for us to live here, and that earth is rapidly being stripped away and destroyed by humans.

What took hundreds and sometimes thousands of years to build up can be gone in a generation with poor management practices, and it looks likely that we are going to have a catastrophic effect on the Earth’s supply of topsoil within the next 50 years unless we take action to address the problem. Reprioritising land use to preserve topsoil is critical, as are reforming to farming practices to make sure long-term sustainability is foregrounded. In conversations about how to feed a growing population, the role that farming can have on increasing our problems must be addressed, because once topsoil is gone, it is too late to do anything about it.

Climate change research is hindered by political grandstanding, which makes it even harder to conduct critical studies needed to find out about various human activities that may be impacting the environment. These same studies are necessary to show us exactly what these activities are doing, and how they might be addressed to preserve environmental integrity. They’re also useful for attributing blame, to find out where and how to apply pressure to change conditions on Earth, but more importantly, they show us how to move forward, and what we have to do to preserve natural resources.

There’s much talk of preserving the Earth for the next generation. Evidence shows that we are the next generation, at this point; we need to start preserving the planet for us, because there is a very real chance that we will face environmental hardships on a large scale within the next 50 years. Even if you don’t give a fig for who might come after you, you might want to think about how you plan to live out your life.

I don’t know about you, but I plan on being alive in 2062, and I plan on having a good quality of life when I get there. And I plan on a good quality of life for all people on Earth. Our need for reform is no longer theoretical, but practical and urgently necessary.

The next generation is now, and we get to decide how we are going to live. And, yes, what we are going to pass down to the generation that comes after us, and the one after them; if those generations are ever given a chance to exist, that is.