Celebrating World Soil Day 2022
Soil is one part of the natural world that is considered unglamorous and unimportant. Soil is thought of by many simply as dirt, a word with connotations of filth, grime, and muck. But soil does so much more than just making up the ground on which we stand. Soil provides the essential foundations of life on this planet.
This Monday 5th December is the United Nations World Soil Day which means to focus attention on the importance of healthy soil and advocating for the sustainable management of soil resources. At CCC we champion one soil type in particular – peat. Around 20% of Scotland’s soils are peatlands, but roughly 80% are degraded in some way. In the last few decades, we have woken up to just how important peat is for Scotland and we are learning to value it as much as wind power and whisky. Together, the Peatland ACTION grant and Peatland Code are driving increasing interest in peatland restoration nationwide, delivering a multitude of benefits including reducing emissions, enhancing biodiversity, and improving water quality.
How is it that peat and other soils can sequester and store so much carbon? Soils are made up of a mixture of air, water, minerals and humus (the remains of plant and animal material). As plants grow and photosynthesise, they take in CO2 and some of this is ‘fixed’ into the soils through debris, roots and fluids, where it becomes soil organic carbon. Peat is made up of a large proportion of partially decomposed organic matter, which builds up over time and can act as a store for vast quantities of carbon.
Some of the figures can be rather staggering. I recently did a calculation for a 64ha lowland raised bog near Wigtown in Dumfries and Galloway that was restored from commercial forestry to open peatland. The average depth of the peat on this site is 4.08 metres with an amazing maximum depth of 8.78m! Based on the peat depth figures I calculated the bog contains 2,502,593 m3 of peat. That’s enough to fill over 1000 Olympic-sized swimming pools! What’s more, that equates to 120,162 tonnes of carbon, the equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions avoided by running 120 wind turbines for a year! Knowing what we know about the value of peatlands, the fact that there are still industrial-scale peat extraction sites used to feed the hunger for peat in the horticulture industry is shocking.
Scotland’s peatlands alone are thought to contain 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon. If we scale these figures up to represent peatlands worldwide, they quickly become astronomical, and let’s not forget that all soils are stores of carbon so it is vital that they are prevented from damage and degradation too. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates that around 1/3 of soils worldwide are degraded in some way – a statistic that becomes even more worrying when it could increase to 90% by 2050.
One of the main threats that face soils worldwide is erosion. We see this on peatlands when the damage and loss of vegetation makes the underlying peat exposed and vulnerable to the impacts of weathering, leading to the formation of hag and gully systems. The issue of soil erosion is being played out worldwide and is accelerating soil loss by up to 1,000 times. Soil forms very slowly (a rate of centimetres per century) and we quite simply cannot afford for it to wash away into our rivers and seas which causes problems such as siltation and pollution.
On an individual level, everyday choices such as avoiding peat compost and buying more organic produce can help make a small difference but when the problem is on a global scale we can often remain feeling overwhelmed. With this in mind, I wanted to finish this blog by sharing some soil-based stories that have inspired me over the past year:
1. Peatland Connections
Peatland Connections officer Kerry and Senior Peatland Officer Anna recently attended the World Congress of Soil Science in Glasgow – read more about their experience.
2. New Soil Tech
Technology is often hailed as the thing that’s going to save humanity. Of course it will take more than a few gadgets get to where we need to be, but here’s some ideas that might help us along the way:
The theme of this year’s world soil day is ‘Where Food Begins’. In Scotland we don’t often think of Peatlands as much of an agricultural growing medium, but in England new farming methods are being explored on the great fen!
4. A Journey to Save Soil
Criss-crossing the globe, one man has secured pledges from 74 countries to preserve their soil through more sustainable farming.