If climate change and food poverty are real concerns to you, a career in soil chemistry is one way you can make a difference. A lot of big changes will be needed to ensure the UK is zero carbon by 2050 at the latest, and the science of soils and floodplain/upland management will be essential for this. Making real changes to emissions and cutting climate change is not just about planting more trees and switching to electric vehicles. The soils on which crops are grown and the moorlands in the hills are also vital for carbon storage, and a recent report from the RSPB has highlighted this fact.(http://ww2.rspb.org.uk/Images/Forestry%20and%20climate%20change%20report%20Feb%202020_tcm9-478449.pdf).
About the RSPB report
The RSPB report was issued in February 2020, and questions the value of commercial tree plantations throughout the UK. Basically, commercial plantations don't provide much benefit when it comes to carbon storage as over 50% of this timber is harvested within 15 years, and 25% is burnt. Burning releases all the carbon that's been stored in the quick growing conifers that are commonly planted in the UK. What's more, using the wood to make pallets, fence products, or packaging also releases its stored carbon over a rapid timeframe. One of the reasons non-native conifer plantations have grown in popularity in the UK is due to their faster build-up of carbon stores, when compared to the slower growing broadleaved trees in our native woods and forests.
Thomas Lancaster, the Head of UK Land Policy at the RSPB, said: "There is no point growing a lot of fast-growing conifers with the logic that they sequester carbon quickly if they then go into a paper mill because all that carbon will be lost to the atmosphere within a few years. We should not be justifying non-native forestry on carbon grounds if it’s not being used as a long-term carbon store." (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/10/uk-commercial-tree-plantations-ineffective-climate-crisis-report)
It's estimated the UK will need to plant 1.5bn new trees by the year 2050 in order to meet its climate commitments, and this will increase total forest cover to 19%. However, simply planting commercial crops will not be the solution. Ecologist Ellie Crane says: "The best place for non-native conifers to quickly sequester carbon is on intensively farmed lowland but this high-quality agricultural land is too expensive for forestry to make financial sense for landowners."
You're perhaps starting to wonder just how this relates to soils, and a move towards a career in soil science?
Ultimately, it's about planting the right trees in the best places. Well planting commercial crops of conifers on cheaper lands like the bogs in the Scottish Flow Country of Caithness and Sunderland will not just be a disaster for biodiversity, but will also lead to higher emissions of carbon because as the peat bogs drain due to forestry, the peat releases high levels of carbon.
Of course, there is a need for the UK to produce commercial timber, however, planting commercial and fast growing firs in the shallow peatlands found in Wales, the Pennines, and the Lake District will be better for the environment. However, the RSPB still highlights grave concerns about the ways this will impact on native wildlife.
The ways that soil can provide solutions to climate crisis include reducing land degradation, and cutting global deforestation. There is more than three times as much carbon locked up in global soils as there is in the atmosphere, so soil science is likely to play a major part in the global fight to reduce warming and cut emissions.
Recent UK flooding highlighted the vital part soil management plays in any landscape
Farmers and landowners are increasingly recognising just how important good soil management is to the natural environment. It's been increasingly common to grow crops on traditional flood plains, but the government's new Environmental Land Management Scheme sets out to address this imbalance and reimburse farmers for better soil management and increased water storage (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/02/thank-you-greta-natural-solutions-to-uk-flooding-climb-the-agenda-aoe).
This is another good reason to think about a career in soil science!
What does a soil scientist do?
Working as a soil scientist enables you to solve the soil problems impacting on global communities, as well as in the UK. Soil scientists can solve imbalances within any kind of soil, using chemistry, physics, and biology techniques. Gathering, interpreting, and evaluating relevant data is vital to the big picture in any environment, and soil science helps influence decisions on:
- Agricultural and crop production
- Climate change
- Human and animal health
- Ways to remedy land degradation
- Quality of any environment
Soil isn't just vital to the agricultural sector, as the built environment is also reliant upon it. One of the reasons the 2020 winter floods hit urban environments so badly was due to increased use of hard landscaping in towns and cities, as water simply has nowhere to go! This means the science of soil and land management will increasingly impact on urban and major infrastructure developments. It's also important for soil scientists and environmental experts to be involved within the movement and relocation of soils (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/apr/01/betrayal-of-trust-hs2-criticised-over-removal-woodland-soils). As moving soil during winter has less impact on wildlife and the natural world, than moving it in spring or summer does.
Some of the different careers in soil science to consider include:
-Specialising in soil classification and distribution, known as pedology
- Soil chemistry
- Soil physics
- Soil biology
Also careers in soil surveying, soil mineralogy, and soil and land management could be considered.
What qualifications are needed for soil scientists?
You'll need a science degree to develop your career in soil science, this could be in subjects like biology, environmental science, chemistry, or geology. You could also take an undergraduate degree in soil science and plants, although Aberdeen is currently the only university offering this option.
You can then go on to study soil at postgraduate level. Universities offering postgrad opportunities and research roles in soil science include:
Find out more agricultural careers and roles as a soil scientist at Agricultural Recruitment Specialists today.
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