New Science Synthesis on Soils and Soil Management

pothole-wetland
Soils in the Prairie Pothole Region allow water to pond in small, shallow, seasonal depressions referred to as “potholes.” Photo by Lawrence D. Igl, U.S. Geological Survey.

We don’t often think about what’s underneath our feet, but soils are essential for the food we eat, building materials for our homes, the clean water we drink, storing carbon and mitigating climate change, even the air we breathe.

Our health and well-being depend on healthy soils. It may be time to take a closer look. A new open-access book, Forest and Rangeland Soils of the United States under Changing Conditions: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis, compiles the latest research and knowledge of forest and rangeland soils.

USDA Forest Service scientists led the collaborative effort with dozens of authors across the Forest Service and beyond to capture and synthesize the state of knowledge of forest and grassland soils.

Driving across the U.S., we see a mosaic of forests, rivers, farm fields, towns, and cities. The visible change in the boundaries of forests and fields is matched by similar, though less visible, patterns in the soils. For example, the turnover time for carbon near the soil surface ranges from 15 to 300 years, not much different than the lifespan of trees. Yet, lost soil carbon takes many hundreds of years to replace, whereas removing tree branches and logging slash has comparatively little effect on stored carbon.

Soils are affected by both the long-term processes that shape Earth’s surface and their unique land use histories. Soils absorb these impacts and are imprinted by them.

soil-after-fire
The intense heat generated by the burning of large woody material causes soil oxidation, which has profound soil impacts. After a severe fire, soils may be void of almost all biological activity, and the length of time for recovery is unknown. Photo by Doni McKay, USFS.

Disturbances such as wildfires, floods, or even invasive species make forest and rangeland soils across the U.S. more vulnerable. When two or more of these disturbances — or stressors such as a changing climate — occur at the same time, the impacts on soil health can be more severe.

This report synthesizes leading-edge science and management information about forest and rangeland soils of the U.S., offers ways to better understand changing conditions and their impacts on soils, and explores directions that positively affect the future of forest and rangeland soil health.

Across ten chapters, the book explores the current knowledge of soils and science around soil carbon, hydrology, biogeochemistry, and biological diversity, and discusses the effects of natural and human-caused disturbances. It also provides managers with information to improve soil health by examining region-specific soil responses to various land management techniques.

In this time of more frequent and intense disturbances, accelerated population growth and urbanization, and a rapidly changing climate, soil health must be at the center of management and restoration planning and actions for the nation’s forests and rangelands. This comprehensive publication pushes the field of soil science forward, informing management of forest and rangeland soils.

Learn more about Forest Service soils research in these chapters:

The USDA Forest Service acknowledges our partners from many agencies and organizations across the U.S. that contributed their science to this publication. Through their collaboration we are able to advance our mission to help sustain forests and grasslands for present and future generations.

Learn about World Soil Day on December 5.

For more information, email Deborah Page-Dumroese at debbie.dumroese@usda.gov.

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