Embracing the Dynamic Nature of Soil Structure: A Paradigm Illuminating the Role of Life in Critical Zones of the Anthropocene

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Soils form the skin of the Earth’s surface, regulating water and biogeochemical cycles and generating production of food, timber, and textiles around the world. Changes in soil and its ability to perform a range of processes have important implications for Earth system function, especially in the critical zone (CZ)—the area that extends from the top of the canopy to the bottom of groundwater and that harbors most of Earth’s biosphere. A key aspect of the way soil functions results from its structure, defined as the size, shape, and arrangement of soil particles and pores. The network of pores provides storage space for at least a quarter of Earth’s biodiversity, while the abundance, size and connectivity of the pore space regulates fluxes of heat, water, nutrients and gases that define the physical and chemical environment. Here we review the nature of soil structure, focusing on its co-evolution with the plants and microbes that live within the soil, and the degree to which these processes have been incorporated into flow and transport models. Though it is well known that soil structure can change with wetting and drying events, often oscillating seasonally, the dynamic nature of soil structure that we discuss is a systematic shift that results in changes in its hydro-bio-geochemical function over decades to centuries, timescales over which major changes in carbon and nutrient cycles have been observed in the Anthropocene. We argue that the variable nature of soil structure, and its dynamics, need to be better understood and captured by land surface and ecosystem models, which currently describe soil structure as static. We further argue that modelers and empiricists both are well-poised to quantify and incorporate these dynamics into their studies. From these efforts, four fundamental questions emerge: 1) How do rates of soil aggregate formation and collapse, and their overall arrangements, interact in the Anthropocene to regulate CZ functioning from soil particle to continental scales? 2) How do alterations in rooting-depth distributions in the Anthropocene influence pore structure to control hydrological partitioning, biogeochemical transformations and fluxes, exchanges of energy and carbon with the atmosphere and climate, regolith weathering, and thus regulation of CZ functioning? 3) How does changing microbial functioning in a high CO2, warmer world with shifting precipitation patterns influence soil organic carbon dynamics and void-aggregate profile dynamics? 4) How deeply does human influence in the Anthropocene propagate into the subsurface, how does this depth relate to profile structure, and how does this alter the rate at which the CZ develops? The United Nations has recently recognized that 33% of the Earth's soils are already degraded and over 90% could become degraded by 2050. This recognition highlights the importance of addressing these proposed questions, which will promote a predictive understanding of soil structure.


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