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7 Reason Healthy Soil Is Vital to Human Life on Earth

Food

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has declared 2015 the International Year of Soils, paying tribute to the life-giving ground beneath our feet.

"It is difficult to rate the importance of the different soil functions, since all are vital to our well-being to some extent," it says. "However, the function of supporting food and agriculture worldwide is fundamental for the preservation and advancement of human life on this planet."

Most of us know that: no soil, no sustenance. Famines are driven by soil degradation, as poor farming practices lead to soil loss through erosion and leaching of nutrients from the soil. Anyone who has done even a little gardening recognizes how the quality of the soil can change the outcome of the harvest. But soil serves us in so many other ways, FAO points out.

It is difficult to rate the importance of the different soil functions, since all are vital to our well-being to some extent." Photo credit: UN Food and Agriculture Organization

1. Since soil is the basis for plant growth, it contributes to the maintenance of both the natural and planted landscape. It supports the forests, wetlands, jungles, prairies and grasslands that spawn the planet's amazing vegetative biodiversity. Those plants—some of which we are still discovering—provide food, fuel, animal feed, medicine and raw materials for clothing, household goods and other essentials. Plants in turn help prevent soil erosion.

2. Soil also supports animal biodiversity, above and below ground. It's essential to the lives of both wildlife and domesticated livestock. And the soil itself is teeming with a fathomless number of micro-organisms and insects as well as familiar organisms such as earthworms that maintain soil quality, provide nutrients, break down toxic elements and interact with water and air to help maintain a healthy natural environment.

3. Soil is important in providing an adequate water supply and maintaining its quality. Soil and the vegetation it supports catch and distribute rainwater and play a key role in the water cycle and supply. Soil distribution can impact rivers, lakes and streams, changing their shape, size, capacity and direction.

4. The water absorption properties of soil play a role in reducing pollution from chemicals in pesticides and other compounds.

5. Soil provides both the foundation and base materials for buildings, roads and other built infrastructure.

6. Soil holds the key to Earth's history, containing and preserving artifacts of the planet's past, both its natural and its human/cultural antecedents. You can thank soil for those dinosaur fossils every kid loves to see at a natural history museum as well as the relics that tell us how our own human story evolved.

7. And critical to Earth's future, soils and how we use them play an important role in helping us to address climate change. Soil organic matter is one of our major pools of carbon, capable of acting as either a source or sink. Soil contains the fossil fuels that drive climate change when extracted but when left underground give us the chance to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change and reach our eventual goal of a zero-emissions world.

The FAO Soils Portal provides a wealth of information about what is being done and what can be done to maintain the beneficial qualities of soils around the globe.

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"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."