Digging into the Climate-Preserving Power of Soils

Guillermo Hernandez Ramirez explains why he focuses on understanding the ground beneath our feet.

By Olivia DeBourcier

Why should we care about soil?

Soils can store carbon. So that means that if we are able to increase carbon from organic matter in the soil, then we are actually removing that carbon from the atmosphere. This can help us to mitigate climate change, at least for several decades. And this can help us to gain some time to find potential solutions to climate change.

So soil management can actually mitigate climate change!

Soils can also help with adaptation to climate change. By increasing organic matter you can improve water availability in soils, then we can also have better availability of water for plants. And that can help us better handle droughts or other conditions that are challenging for growing plants.

Soils have a memory. If we have managed that resource in a beneficial way, then we can see those benefits. But, if we manage detrimentally, we can also see that.

What do you mean by saying the “soil has memory”?

If we have added some materials to the soil, those will continue to cycle inside the soil. Over time, they will be transformed. But until that happens, we keep remembering that fingerprint, that identity that was created by how we manage it.

How long does it take to do some of this research?

We have experiments that have been in place for several decades, even for 80 years or for 100 years. This is a generational relay of different resources and different scientists who have been keeping these experiments in place so that the new generations can continue to learn about how it responds in the long run.

Your lab looks at soils from a variety of landscapes all around the world. Given that soil types can change dramatically within even the same forest, how do you deal with the variety of these settings in your research?

That heterogeneity keeps us busy, but it also keeps us very entertained in the sense that there is always something new for us.

There is no way to improve one of those ecosystems without having an impact on neighbouring or even faraway ecosystems.

What kinds of management practices are being used or maybe are starting to be used in order to be more sustainable in our management of soils?

We talk a lot about choices of crop rotation. By including more diversity of crops or grasses in grasslands or even a different tree species in the forest, then we can actually develop better resiliency.

What is something you want your students to remember about soils?

Soil is there all the time and it’s able to support life. It’s a central piece of our ecosystems and we are managing those resources and being a steward of the resources.

Anyone can contribute to healthy soils!

Follow Guillermo Hernandez Ramirez’ tips to help build healthier soils.

  • “Find a plot in a community garden.” This builds communities around producing food, generating stakeholders who care about soil health.
  • “Separate organics from waste.” Composting at home can create a valuable resource for your own garden soil, while municipal composting benefits the wider community.

Meet the students and academics who are discovering solutions to our climate and sustainability challenges. Writing from Edmonton-Amiskwacîwâskahikan, Canada.