Earth Over Time

January 31, 2007
Woodcut etching of tree

Antar Dyal


Daniel D. Richter Jr. Ph. D. '80, professor of soils and forest ecology at the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, has received a $425,000, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create the world's first international network for the long-term study of global soil change.

The grant will support the creation of a new Global Soil Change Community (GSCC), with headquarters at the Nicholas School.

"Soil plays a key role in controlling the biogeochemistry of our atmosphere, oceans, and freshwaters," Richter says. "We know it's integrally connected to global climate change. And we know that the Earth's soil is changing rapidly, driven largely by human impacts."

Despite all this, remarkably little is understood about the rate of these changes and the processes driving them, Richter says. "Clearly, a new approach is needed; GSCC is one step in that direction."

GSCC will promote a broad approach to soil science that "makes use of interdisciplinary expertise to inform scientists, students, teachers, and policymakers alike about global soil change—not only what's occurring below ground, but what those changes mean for us above ground, too," Richter says.

One of GSCC's major challenges, he says, will be the networking of the world's long-term soil studies, in which scientists monitor and measure changes occurring in the Earth's soil. Such networks are already in place to study long-term changes in weather, wildlife populations, water and air quality, and other environmental systems.

With support from Duke's Center on Global Change, Richter and graduate students from Duke, North Carolina State University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have already assembled a searchable online inventory of more than 160 research sites worldwide. They are evaluating the sites to determine which should be included in the new GSCC network.

"Some of the world's best test sites, especially those in developing nations, are vulnerable to loss due to budgetary cuts, the retirement of senior researchers, deterioration of infrastructure, or instability of local governments," Richter says. "In South Africa, for example, there's a thirty-year study on agricultural soil productivity that was recently discontinued when a principal investigator retired. This study produced many peer-reviewed papers on soil's response to management, but now it's gone. We can't afford to let that happen to other sites."

To communicate the new research findings, GSCC will host annual workshops focusing on new or pressing environmental issues, such as carbon cycling or soil contaminants. Richter plans to involve students in the workshops and to sponsor undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral research and training programs. In addition, he is already working to establish a comprehensive online database and reference library on global soil change that will be of value to everyone from scientists to farmers to foresters.