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April 17, 2013

Pioneering Soil Researcher Wins Top Environment Prize

by Faith Lapidus

Biologist Diana Wall went to the ends of the earth - the seemingly lifeless Antarctic desert - to study the life in soil.

"What soil life does for us, it provides us with many benefits that we don't really think about," Wall said. "I think the thing that surprises people most about soil is when they take a handful of it, this is a lot of life that has evolved over time, there are food webs in there, there are interactions going on by the second, to transform what we know as things above ground.”

Over the past two decades, she's explored the effect this complex and fragile ecosystem has on climate and biodiversity.

This month, Wall’s pioneering work won the 2013 Tyler Environmental Prize, one of the top international environmental awards.

The Colorado State University researcher stresses that the ground beneath our feet is more than dirt.

"All these organisms in soil are providing us with things such as soil fertility, more nutrients for plant growth, they are providing us with all sorts of controls on these plant parasites," Wall said. "Another one is they help to clean the air and the water.“  

Other scientists are beginning to think about how this hidden life in soils affects food security and the release of carbon dioxide.

"Organisms in soil breathe, and they release CO2 and store CO2, and they store other types of carbon," Wall said. "You disrupt that cycle, then all of a sudden we have more CO2 in the atmosphere, we have more climate change, which is affecting the soils, so it’s an intimate feedback between the soil organisms and the atmosphere."

She calls the biodiversity of the soil ecosystem “the missing link” in our effort to protect the world’s environment.

"Climate change, for example, the Framework Convention to Combat Climate Change, as well as desertification, loss of biodiversity…all these things are intertwined, and, as we move forward, we have to think about how do we manage our soils and the life within our soils, so that we can manage ourselves," she said.

According to Wall, healthy soils are vital not just to making agriculture more sustainable, but to slowing global climate change - efforts we all have a stake in.