From dust bowl to dust bowl: soils are still very much a frontier of science
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When the Soil Science Society of America was created, 75 yr ago, the USA was suffering from major dust storms, causing the loss of enormous amounts of topsoil as well as human lives. These catastrophic events reminded public officials that soils are essential to society’s well-being. The Soil Conservation Service was founded and farmers were encouraged to implement erosion mitigation practices. Still, many questions about soil processes remained poorly understood and controversial. In this article, we argue that the current status of soils worldwide parallels that in the USA at the beginning of the 20th century. Dust bowls and large-scale soil degradation occur over vast regions in a number of countries. Perhaps more so even than in the past, soils currently have the potential to affect populations critically in several other ways as well, from their effect on global climate change, to the toxicity of brownfield soils in urban settings. Even though our collective understanding of soil processes has experienced significant advances since 1936, many basic questions still remain unanswered, for example whether or not a switch to no-till agriculture promotes C sequestration in soils, or how to account for microscale heterogeneity in the modeling of soil organic matter transformation. Given the enormity of the challenges raised by our (ab)uses of soils, one may consider that if we do not address them rapidly, and in the process heed the example of U.S. public officials in the 1930s who took swift action, humanity may not get a chance to explore other frontiers of science in the future. From this perspective, insistence on the fact that soils are critical to life on earth, and indeed to the survival of humans, may again stimulate interest in soils among the public, generate support for soil research, and attract new generations of students to study soils.