Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Signals in the soil

The aim of this programme is to deliver sustainable, resilient and functional soils by using advances in sensor systems and modelling to transform existing capabilities in understanding dynamic near-surface soil processes.

Budget:
up to £8 million from NERC for eligible UK-based researchers and $5.6 million from National Science Foundation (NSF) and US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA) for US-based researchers
Duration:
2019 to 2022
Partners involved:
Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), NSF, USDA NIFA

The scope and what we're doing

The programme will address the challenge of transforming existing capabilities in understanding dynamic near-surface soil processes through advances in sensor systems and modelling, and through this deliver sustainable, resilient and functional soils, whether managed or unmanaged.

Why we're doing it

Soils support economic prosperity and provide services that are essential for humanity. Soils are complex living ecosystems containing billions of organisms that mediate a myriad of biological, chemical and physical processes, including cycling carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous and nutrients essential for plant growth, food and fibre production, and removing contaminants from water.

Soil ecosystems supply most of the antibiotics used to fight human diseases, control the movement of water and chemical substances between the Earth and its atmosphere, and act as source and storage media for nutrients and gases important to life, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, oxygen, carbon dioxide and methane.

Soil is also the foundation material for all structures not supported on rock and is, by orders of magnitude, the most widely-used construction material in the world. Underground structures such as pipelines, tunnels and basements must resist soil movement, corrosion and groundwater seepage to perform properly.

Historically, solid and liquid waste materials have been disposed of in the ground, often resulting in significant soil and groundwater pollution. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent in the US to locate and treat soil and groundwater contamination from nuclear weapons production, deliberate and accidental chemical spills, pipeline ruptures and many other sources of hazardous materials.

We need to improve our understanding of how rapidly changing environmental factors govern microbial degradation of soil carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous compounds in active soil layers and permafrost. Thus, as the Earth’s population grows to nearly 10 billion by 2050, we need a better understanding of the complex processes and problems of soil ecosystems that will continue to play a critical role in feeding the world and other important life support functions.

As global demands rise for food, fibres and bioenergy, and as land degradation, driven by land use change, poor agricultural practices, contamination and urbanisation occurs, we require more from a diminishing soil resource. Advancing our understanding of soil ecosystems and our capacity to manage this vital resource becomes increasingly urgent and important.

To accomplish this research, multiple disciplines must converge to produce novel sensors and sensing systems of multiple modalities that are adaptable to different environments and collect data and report on a wide range of chemical, biological and physical parameters. This type of approach will also be necessary to develop next generation soil models, wireless communication and cyber systems capabilities, and to grow a scientific community that is able to address complex problems through education and outreach.

This programme fosters collaboration among the partner agencies and the researchers they support by combining resources and funding for the most innovative and high-impact projects that address their respective missions.

Opportunities, support and resources available

Past projects, outcomes and impact

Who to contact

Jennifer Wickens

Email: soils@nerc.ukri.org

Last updated: 31 March 2022

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