February 20, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Soil, Sustainability, and the Blue Revolution

Life-sustaining resources are right beneath our feet, says a Penn State hydrologist.

Henry Lin, professor of hydropedology and soil hydrology at Penn State, has some good news for environmentalists worried about the availability of water for a thirsty world.  In a Penn State press release, he said:

We look at nature and we see all the beauty and all the prosperity around us,” said Lin, “But most people don’t know or tend to forget that the key to sustainability is right underground.

He shared some amazing facts about soil ecology:

  • Soil “helps soak up and purify water by extracting excess nutrients, heavy metals and other impurities.”
  • “The ground can also act as a storage container for freshwater.”
  • “About 60 percent of the world’s annual precipitation ends up in this zone, Lin said.”
  • Lin added, “In fact, there is more water under the ground than there is in the so-called ‘blue waters,’ such as lakes and rivers.”

We tend to forget about soil.  It’s out of sight, out of mind.  That needs to change:

Without water there is no life,” Lin said. “Without groundwater, there is no clean water.

Lin looks forward to a “Blue Revolution” where farmers will prevent flooding, building designers will minimize runoff and keep groundwaters replenished, and city planners will minimize groundwater contamination.  Such a revolution “may lead to efforts to water security with clean, safe water supply around the globe.”

Speaking of soil, PhysOrg discussed how natural soil antibiotics can offer an alternative to farm chemicals.  “All you have to do is make your microbial community happy,” one researcher said, and they can help feed the world.   And speaking of clean water, for the rainfall-poor areas, researchers at Eindhoven University of Technology, “inspired by nature,” have devised a coating for cotton that can hold 340% its weight in pure, fresh water by absorbing it from desert air.  They got the idea from desert beetles and spiders that collect their water from fog.

Did you know that soil is a giant sponge that holds 60% of the worlds rainfall and cleanses it?  What a wonder simple soil is – a complex ecosystem involving decaying plant material, numerous animals and countless microbes.  It’s a marvelously designed system that human beings can protect and preserve or erode away.  The choice is ours.

Many third-world countries are desperate for clean water.  Some common-sense planning can enhance the gift of soil, a gift that will give back an overflowing abundance of life.  New biomimetic technologies can pull clean, pure drinking water right out of the air.  This is the kind of thing science should focus on, not speculative tales about the unobservable past.  Let’s help real people in the here and now.


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