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3. The effects of global change on soil conditions in relation to plant growth and food production

Land and Water Development Division. FAO, Rome, Italy

Possible changes in forcing variables
Effects of higher CO2 on soil fertility, physical conditions and productivity
Effects of rainfall and temperature changes in different climates
Processes in soils
Some properties of clay surfaces
Resilience against physical and chemical soil degradation
Resilience against soil reduction (anoxic conditions)
Soil reaction (pH)
Effects of a rising sea level on soils in coastal areas

The main potential changes in soil-forming factors (forcing variables) directly resulting from global change would be in organic matter supply from biomass, soil temperature regime and soil hydrology, the latter because of shifts in rainfall zones as well as changes in potential evapotranspiration. Soil changes because of a potential rise in sea level resulting from a net reduction in Antarctic ice cap volume and ocean warming are discussed in Brammer and Brinkman (1990) and are summarized at the end of this paper.

The biggest single change in soils expected as a result of these postulated forcing changes would be a gradual improvement in fertility and physical conditions of soils in humid and subhumid climates. Another major change would be the poleward retreat of the permafrost boundary, discussed by Goryachkin and Targulian (1990). Other widespread changes would be in degree rather than in kind. Certain tropical soils with low physico-chemical activity, such as in the Amazon region, may undergo a radical change from one major soil-forming process to another (Sombroek, 1990), as discussed below under Processes in soils.

The changes in temperature but particularly in rainfall to be expected as a result of global warming are subject to major uncertainties for several reasons. Different global circulation models do not lead to mutually consistent results (an example for Europe is given by Santer, 1985), and they are not yet adequately verified. Also, the interaction with changes in location and intensity of major ocean currents and resultant possible modifications in sea surface temperatures is still most uncertain, as well as the interaction with possible major changes in cloudiness and land cover and the resulting changes in albedo and actual evapotranspiration.

Indirect effects of climate change on soils through CO2-induced increases in growth rates or water-use efficiencies, through sea-level rise, through climate-induced decrease or increase in vegetative cover, or a change in human influence on soils because of the changes in options for the farmer, for example, may well each be greater than direct effects on soils of higher temperatures or greater rainfall variability and larger or smaller rainfall totals.

Possible changes in forcing variables

With these caveats, one could stipulate the following changes in forcing variables as likely to materialize sometime during the next century:

· A gradual, continuing rise in atmospheric CO2 concentration entailing increased photosynthetic rates and water-use efficiencies of vegetation and crops, hence increases in organic matter supplies to soils.

· Minor increases in soil temperatures in the tropics and subtropics; moderate increases and extended periods in which soils are warm enough for microbial activity (warmer than about 5°C) in temperate and cold climates, parallel to the changes in air temperatures and vegetation zones as summarized by Emanuel et al. (1985).

· Minor increases in evapotranspiration in the tropics to major increases in high latitudes caused both by temperature increase and by extension of the growing period.

· Increases in amount and in variability of rainfall in the tropics; possible decrease in rainfall in a band in the subtropics poleward of the present deserts; minor increases in amount and variability in temperate and cold regions. Peak rainfall intensities could increase in several regions.

· A gradual sea-level rise causing deeper and longer inundation in river and estuary basins and on levee backslopes, and brackish-water inundation leading to encroachment of vegetation that accumulates pyrite in soils near the coast.

This paper will not touch upon a possibly increased frequency and severity of cyclonic storms in the present cyclone belts or conceivable poleward widening of these belts because of increased sea surface temperatures, which would also give rise to greater frequencies of high-intensity rainfall events.

Effects of higher CO2 on soil fertility, physical conditions and productivity

Higher atmospheric CO2 concentration, as discussed in subsequent chapters, increases growth rates and water-use efficiency of crops and natural vegetation in so far as other factors do not become limiting. The higher temperature optima of some plants under increased CO2 would tend to counteract adverse effects of temperature rise, such as increased nighttime respiration. The shortened growth cycle of a given species because of higher CO2 and temperature would be compensated for in natural vegetation by adjustments in species composition or dominance. In agro-ecosystems the choice of longer-duration cultivars or changes in cropping pattern could eliminate unproductive periods that might arise because of the shorter growth cycle of the main crop.

There will be adequate time to adjust to the changes since these are expected to occur over decades, rather than years or days as in all present experimental situations. This chapter deals with the effects of gradually rising CO2 concentrations as observed in the recent past and stipulated in simulation models that apply transient scenarios.

As summarized in Figure 3.1, the increased productivity is generally accompanied by more litter or crop residues, a greater total root mass and root exudation, increased mycorrhizal colonization and activity of other rhizosphere or soil micro-organisms, including symbiotic and root-zone N, fixers. The latter would have a positive effect on N supply to crops or vegetation. The increased microbial and root activity in the soil would entail higher CO2 partial pressure in soil air and CO2 activity in soil water, hence increased rates of plant nutrient release (e.g., K, Mg, micronutrients) from weathering of soil minerals. Similarly, the mycorrhizal activity would lead to better phosphate uptake. These effects would be in synergy with better nutrient uptake by the more intensive root system due to higher atmospheric CO2 concentration. There is no a priori reason why the degree of synchrony between nutrient release and demand by crops or natural vegetation would be subject to major changes under high CO2 conditions.

The greater microbial activity tends to increase the quantity of plant nutrients cycling through soil organisms. The increased production of root material (at similar temperatures) tends to raise soil organic matter content, which also entails the temporary immobilization and cycling of greater quantities of plant nutrients in the soil. Higher C/N ratios in litter, reported by some workers under high CO2 conditions, would entail slower decomposition and slower remobilization of the plant nutrients from the litter and uptake by the root mat, and would provide more time for incorporation into the soil by earthworms, termites, etc. Higher soil temperatures would counteract increases in 'stable' soil organic matter content but would further stimulate microbial activity.

In all experimental situations, whether chamber-type or free-air enrichment, CO2 increases are rapid or sudden, often to double ambient concentration, sometimes higher. The consequently rapid increases in soil organic matter dynamics and soil micro-organisms may cause temporary competition for plant nutrients. These temporary effects have on occasion been reported as negative factors affecting plant response to elevated CO2 However, increased organic matter dynamics and microbial activity in soils are positive for the soil-plant system when CO2 concentrations rise gradually over decades, as currently and in the recent past. Future experiments could be set up to compensate for the temporary effects caused by the suddenness of the CO2 increase, for example by artificially higher soil organic matter contents estimated to be near equilibrium with each stepwise higher CO2 concentration, in a range between 350 and 600 ppm.

Increased microbial activity due to higher CO2 concentration and temperature produces greater amounts of polysaccharides and other soil stabilizers. Increases in litter or crop residues, root mass and organic matter content tend to stimulate the activity of soil macrofauna, including earthworms, with consequently improved infiltration rate and bypass flow by the greater number of stable biopores. The greater stability and the faster infiltration increase the resilience of the soil against water erosion and consequent loss of soil fertility. The increased proportion of bypass flow also decreases the nutrient loss by leaching during periods with excess rainfall. This refers to the available nutrients in the soil, including well-incorporated fertilizers or manure, but not to fertilizers broadcast on the soil surface. These are subject to loss by runoff or leaching.

Figure 3.1. Qualitative relationships between gradually increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration 1, soil characteristics and medium-term processes in soils 2, and biomass or crop productivity 3

1 Gradually rising CO2 as in this century and in transient global change scenarios.

2 Soils with some weatherable minerals at least in the subsoil or substratum within rooting depth.

3 Extreme weather events may disrupt some relationships in the figure, so any major increase in their frequency or intensity may counteract positive effects shown.

4 Species composition adjusts, or choices indicated are made to adjust, to the newly attainable biomass or crop production under increased atmospheric CO2, compensating for shortened growth cycles of existing species or crops. The figure does not include the positive effects of higher temperatures on length of growing periods in temperate or boreal climates.

These changes increase the resilience of the soil against physical degradation and nutrient loss by increased intensity, seasonality or variability of rainfall, as well as against some of the unfavourable changes in rate or direction of soil-forming processes discussed in the next sections.

If the partial pressure of CO2 in the soil air would rise, and that of O2 decrease to levels impairing root function, part of the benefits indicated would not materialize. The improved gas exchange with the atmosphere through increased numbers of stable biopores would tend to keep CO2 and O2 in the soil at 'safe' levels, at least in naturally or artificially well-drained soils. Wetland crops such as rice or jute have their own gas exchange mechanisms and would not be affected; neither would natural wetland vegetation.

The positive effect on weathering rate and plant nutrient availability would occur in soils with significant amounts of weatherable minerals, not in very deeply and strongly weathered or otherwise very poor soils.

Effects of rainfall and temperature changes in different climates

In the humid tropics and monsoon climates, increased intensities of rainfall events and increased rainfall totals would increase leaching rates in well-drained soils with high infiltration rates, and would cause temporary flooding or water-saturation, hence reduced organic matter decomposition, in many soils in level or depressional sites. This may affect a significant proportion of especially the better soils in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example. They would also give rise to greater amounts and frequency of runoff on soils in sloping terrain, with sedimentation downslope and, worse, downstream. Locally, there would be increased chances of mass movement in the form of landslides or mudflows in certain soft sedimentary materials, discussed below. Soils most resilient against such changes would have adequate cation exchange capacity and anion sorption to minimize nutrient loss during leaching flows, and have a high structural stability and a strongly heterogeneous system of continuous macropores to maximize infiltration and rapid bypass flow through the soil during high-intensity rainfall.

In subtropical and other subhumid or semi-arid areas, the increased productivity and water-use efficiency due to higher CO2 would tend to increase ground cover, counteracting the effects of higher temperatures. If there would be locally much less rainfall and increasing intra- and inter-annual variability, these could lead to less dry-matter production and hence, in due course, lower soil organic matter contents. Periodic leaching during high-intensity rainfall with less standing vegetation could desalinize some soils in well-drained sites, cause increased runoff in others, and lead to soil salinization in depressional sites or where the groundwater table is high. Soils most resilient against the effects of such increasing aridity and rainfall variability would have a high structural stability and a strongly heterogeneous system of continuous macropores (the same as in the tropics); hence a rapid infiltration rate, as well as a large available water capacity and a deep groundwater table.

Higher temperatures, particularly in arid conditions, entail a higher evaporative demand. Where there is sufficient soil moisture, for example in irrigated areas, this could lead to soil salinization if land or farm water management, or irrigation scheduling or drainage are inadequate. On the other hand, recent experiments by the Salinity Laboratory, Riverside, California, point to increased salt tolerance of crops under high atmospheric CO2 conditions (E.V. Maas, pers. comm.; Bowman and Strain, 1987).

In temperate climates, minor increases in rainfall totals would be expected to be largely taken up by increased evapotranspiration of vegetation or crops at the expected higher temperatures, so that net hydrologic or chemical effects on the soils might be small. The negative effect on soil organic matter contents of a temperature rise might be more than compensated by the greater organic matter supply from vegetation or crops growing more vigorously because of the higher photosynthesis, the greater potential evapotranspiration and the higher water-use efficiency in a high-CO2 atmosphere. The temperate zone would thus be likely to have the smallest changes in soils, even in poorly buffered ones, directly caused by the effects of global change. A minor and probably slow, but very visible, change could be a reddening of presently brown soils where increased periods with high summer temperatures would coincide with dry conditions, so that the iron oxide haematite would be stable over the presently dominant goethite. This mineralogical change might decrease the intensity and amount of phosphate fixation. An overview of such changes, with emphasis on temperate climate zones, is given by Buol et al. (1990).

In boreal climates, the gradual disappearance of large extents of permafrost and the reduction of frost periods in extensive belts adjoining former permafrost are expected to improve the internal drainage of soils in vast areas, with probable increases in leaching rates. The appreciable increase in period when the soil temperature is high enough for microbial activity would lead to lower organic matter contents, probably not fully compensated by increased primary production through somewhat higher net photosynthesis and the longer growing period. Paradoxically, the extent of soils subject to periodic reduction could well increase in level areas, in spite of the greater leaching, because of increased periods when the soils are water-saturated but also sufficiently warm for microbial activity. Soils most resilient against such effects, including the leaching of nutrients and periodic soil reduction, would have similar characteristics as the most resilient ones in other climates: adequate cation exchange capacity and anion sorption to minimize nutrient loss during leaching flows, a high structural stability and a strongly heterogeneous system of continuous macropores to maximize rapid bypass flow during periods with excess meltwater.

Processes in soils

The most rapid processes of chemical or mineralogical change under changing external conditions would be loss of salts and nutrient cations where leaching increases, and salinization where net upward water movement occurs because of increased evapotranspiration or decreased rainfall or irrigation water supply. The clay mineral composition and the mineralogy of the coarser fractions would generally change little, even over centuries. Exceptions would be the transformation of X-ray amorphous material into the clay mineral halloysite when a volcanic soil previously under perennially moist conditions becomes subject to periodic drying, or the gradual dehydration of goethite to haematite in soils subject to higher temperatures or severe drying, or both. Changes in the surface properties of the clay fraction, while generally slower than salt movement, can take place much faster than changes in bulk composition or crystal structure. Such surface changes have a dominant influence on soil physical and chemical properties (Brinkman, 1985, 1990).

Changes in the clay mineral surfaces or the bulk composition of the clay fraction of soils are brought about by a small number of transformation processes, listed below (Brinkman, 1982). Each of these processes can be accelerated or inhibited by changes in external conditions due to global change.

· hydrolysis by water containing carbon dioxide, which removes silica and basic cations;

· cheluviation, which dissolves and removes especially aluminium and iron by chelating organic acids;

· ferrolysis, a cyclic process of clay transformation and dissolution mediated by alternating iron reduction and oxidation, which decreases the cation exchange capacity by aluminium interlayering in swelling clay minerals;

· dissolution of clay minerals by strong mineral acids, producing acid aluminium salts and amorphous silica;

· reverse weathering, i.e., clay formation and transformation under neutral to strongly alkaline conditions, which may create, e.g., montmorillonite, palygorskite or analcime.

Hydrolysis and cheluviation may be accelerated by increased leaching rates. Ferrolysis may occur where soils are subject to reduction and leaching in alternation with oxidation: in a warmer world, this may happen over larger areas than at present, especially in high latitudes and in monsoon climates. Dissolution by strong acids would occur, e.g., where sulphidic materials in coastal plains are oxidized with an improvement of drainage; however, a rise in sea level would reduce the likelihood of this occurring naturally. Reverse weathering could begin in areas drying out during global warming, and would continue in most presently arid areas.

These processes would influence the surface properties of the clay fraction only over a period of centuries, even with the changes envisaged as a consequence of global warming. By contrast, direct human action can vastly accelerate some of these processes as is evident, for example, from the severe effects of acid rain on sandy soils in parts of Europe (Van Breemen, 1990) or from the extremely rapid ferrolysis in soils seasonally inundated by water level fluctuations in the Volta lake in Ghana (Amatekpor, 1989).

Not only the speed of soil formation can be accelerated by human action, but also, albeit much more locally, its very nature or direction. In most places, the natural soil-forming processes are not fundamentally changed, but there are certain threshold situations, generally with fragile soils, where even a small change in external conditions may cause a major, and adverse, change from one dominant soil-forming process to another. The four examples summarized below (from Sombroek, 1990) illustrate a change from hydrolysis to cheluviation (Ferralsols to Podzols); irreversible hardening of the subsoil; clay illuviation forming a dense subsoil in originally homogeneous, porous Ferralsols; and salinization.

The yellowish sandy Ferralsols and Ferralic Arenosols of Eastern Amazonia, Kalimantan and the Zaire basin may rapidly change into Podzols or Albic Arenosols (giant Podzols) with even small increases in total rainfall or stronger seasonality, or increased input of acidic ('poor') organic matter. An increase in effective rainfall due to climate change may cause a major increase in the extent of Podzols formed from present-day yellowish sandy Ferralsols where, presently, Podzols occur in patches within the Ferralsols area (Lucas et al., 1987; Dubroeucq and Volkoff, 1988).

The imperfectly drained loamy Plinthosols on the flat interfluves of Western Amazonia would change into shallow, droughty soils with an irreversibly hardened subsoil if subject to drying out with climate change.

The deep reddish, porous loamy to clayey Ferralsols of the transition zones between forest and savanna in Eastern Africa, stable under the present vegetation, may be leached so far that a denser subsoil with washed-in clay is formed below an unstable topsoil with little organic matter, as already observed where the land was cleared several decades ago; the same may happen over more extensive areas under a sparser vegetation brought about by a somewhat drier climate.

The silty Fluvisols in the broad river valleys of the Sudano-Sahelian zone of West Africa, such as the interior delta of the Niger river, may become saline or sodic upon even minimal change in precipitation and flooding regimes - as exemplified by current human actions with the same soil-hydrological implications (Sombroek and Zonneveld, 1971).

Some properties of clay surfaces

Soils with a naturally high structural stability, for example Ferralsols and Nitisols, occupy sizeable areas in the tropics. The former are widespread, among others, in northern South America, the latter in East Africa. The clay fraction in such soils generally has oxidic surfaces: mainly iron(III) and aluminium oxides or hydroxides, while the bulk of the clay fraction may have different compositions. The oxidic surfaces could form from parent materials with moderate or high iron contents under long-continued hydrolysis by water (containing carbon dioxide).

At the other extreme are soils with a very low structural stability, or with a severe hazard of failure under load or shock (so-called quick clays). The surfaces of the clay minerals in these soils are generally covered by amorphous, gel-like material with a high silica content (McKyes et al., 1974). Such material may have originated in earlier periods when the soils were strongly saline and, presumably, subject to processes of reverse weathering. Examples are the quick clays of the Champlain Sea sediments in Ontario and Quebec and of parts of Scandinavia. Such soils are most likely to generate high proportions of runoff and suspended sediment, but also most liable to mudflows once sloping sites are water-saturated to appreciable depth. Some Andosols are thixotropic and have similarly low stability because of their similar composition, derived from volcanic materials (tuff).

Most soils fall somewhere between these extremes. Vertisols, for example, have moderate or low structural stability, and clay surfaces that are mainly silica, but with generally small amounts of amorphous coating. In Planosols, if formed by ferrolysis, the clay fraction in the upper, eluvial horizons has been partly decomposed with a residue of amorphous silica, but the remaining smectite or illite has been interlayered with aluminium hydroxide polymers, which has decreased the swell-shrink potential and the cation exchange capacity of the clay fraction. Concurrently, parts of the free iron oxides have been reduced and leached out. The net effect of these changes generally is a decrease in structural stability.

Resilience against physical and chemical soil degradation

As discussed, most soils do not have a high intrinsic resilience against physical soil degradation by, for example, high-intensity rainfall. In natural conditions in humid climates, it is the complete soil cover near ground level combined with the perforating activity of the soil fauna that makes the soil-vegetation system resilient against physical degradation.

In the Rhine river plain in the Netherlands, for example, most of the originally calcareous alluvial soils have been decalcified within a millennium or so. Only in small areas on the highest levees of that age that have continually remained under forest, soils are still calcareous, and even have lime pseudomycelia (filaments) indicative of less humid soil conditions, and abundant vertical macropores produced by earthworms. In these soils, faunal activity is high because of the adequate litter supply: the resulting macropores remain open, protected against rain impact by litter and undergrowth: and excess water from heavy rain passes to the substratum through the macropores without leaching lime from most of the soil mass.

Research to increase resilience of soils against any adverse effects of climate change could be done in conjunction with that on soil resilience against direct adverse human impacts. Until site-specific management procedures have been elaborated, soil and crop (including trees and pasture) management should aim to maintain soil cover and organic matter supply to soil biota, while minimizing mechanical disturbance by heavy traffic, cultivation or excessive grazing intensity. Such kind of management may also help to conserve plant nutrients (in soils not flooded for wetland cultivation) since the stable, heterogeneous system of biopores produced by the soil fauna would favour bypass flow of any excess moisture and thus decrease leaching through the soil mass.

A single management recipe would not be generally applicable in different conditions. Minimizing damage by certain termite species harming crop performance may necessitate a period without residues on the soil, for example; or crop residues may be needed for feed or fuel. Management methods for wetland need to be developed that make optimum use of any increased potential productivity, while minimizing secondary effects such as increased CH4 or N2O emission from the reduced soil. Such factors, and others, should be taken into account in designing an optimum management strategy for any specific natural and cultural environment.

Resilience against soil reduction (anoxic conditions)

Soil reduction, which would limit land suitability for dryland crops, or strong reduction, which would be liable to produce toxins even for wetland crops, may take place once the soil is water-saturated long enough for microbial action to exhaust the oxygen remaining in the soil when water-saturation started. Another necessary condition is the presence of sufficient readily decomposable organic matter as an energy source for the microbial activity. In most soils, during reduction the redox status is stabilized at an Eh about 100-200 mV near neutrality by the Fe2+ - Fe(OH)3 equilibrium, except where the content of readily decomposable organic matter is very high or the content of free iron (III) oxides very low. In such cases, negative Eh values may occur, and toxic hydrogen sulphide or low-molecular organic compounds - including methane - may be formed.

Resilience against soil reduction in practice depends on the drainage conditions, since most soils have sufficient organic matter for reduction to start within about a week after water-saturation. Soils most resilient against reduction in conditions of increased rainfall variability and incidence of high-intensity rainfall have similar properties as those resilient against the negative effects of other perturbations: high infiltration rate, high structural stability and a permanent heterogeneous system of tubular macropores, good external drainage.

Soil reaction (pH)

Most soils would not be subject to rapid pH changes resulting from climate change. Exceptions might be found in potential acid sulphate soils, extensive in some coastal plains and estuaries, if they become subject to increasingly long dry seasons. Even though most of such soils are clays with moderate or high cation exchange capacity, the amounts of acid liberated in such soils upon oxidation generally exceed this rapid buffering capacity. Therefore, pH values may temporarily reach 2.5 to 3.5 and a small part of the clay fraction may be decomposed as indicated under Processes in soils, above. This then buffers the pH generally between 3.5 and 4 in the long run. Depending on the efficiency with which the excess acid formed can be leached out, the period of extreme acidity and aluminium toxicity may last between less than a year and several decades.

In calcareous soils, soil reaction may range between about 8.5 and 7 depending on the partial pressure of CO2 in the soil; this range is maintained against leaching of basic cations by the different soil processes as long as a few per cent of finely distributed lime remain. Buffering in non-calcareous soils is less strong, but depends on the cation exchange capacity at soil pH. In soils with variable-charge surfaces of the clay fraction, this decreases with acidification.

It should be noted that the simple modelling of accelerated CaCO3 leaching under a doubled atmospheric CO2 concentration generally does not hold true. In most soils, the ongoing decomposition of organic matter maintains CO2 concentrations in the soil air far above atmospheric concentration even now, and CaCO3 solubility is determined by the partial pressure of CO2 in soil air and its activity in soil water, rather than in the atmosphere. Leaching of lime is thus positively related to rate of organic matter decomposition, negatively to gas diffusion rate, and positively to amount of water percolating through the soil.

In conditions where leaching is accelerated by climate change, it would be possible to find relatively rapid soil acidification after a long period with little apparent change, as has been the case - but after a shorter latent period - in some soils in Europe that have been subject to acid rain for several decades. The soil might in fact be steadily depleted of basic cations, but a pH change may start, or may become more rapid, once certain buffering pools are nearly exhausted. Such non-linear and time-delayed effects have been discussed in the context of soil and water pollution by Stigliani (1988); they are also expected to occur in various ways at different times after increased temperatures and changed rainfall patterns will have been operative.

Effects of a rising sea level on soils in coastal areas

The probable effects on soil characteristics of a gradual eustatic rise in sea-level will vary from place to place depending on a number of local and external factors, and interactions between them (Brammer and Brinkman, 1990). In principle, a rising sea level would tend to erode and move back existing coastlines. However, the extent to which this actually happens will depend on the elevation, the resistance of local coastal materials, the degree to which they are defended by sediments provided by river flow or longshore drift, the strength of longshore currents and storm waves, and on human interventions which might prevent or accelerate erosion.

In major deltas, such as those of the Ganges-Brahmaputra and the major Chinese rivers, sediment supplies delivered to the estuary will generally be sufficient to offset the effects of a rising sea level. Such deltaic aggradation could decrease, however, under three circumstances:

· where human interventions inland, such as large dams or successful soil conservation programmes, drastically reduce sediment supply to the delta: e.g., the construction of the Aswan high dam in 1964 has led to coastal erosion and increased flooding of lagoon margins in the Nile delta (Stanley, 1988);

· where construction of embankments within the delta interrupts sediment supply to adjoining backswamps, exposing them to submergence by a rise in sea level: e.g., embankments along the lower Mississippi river have cut off sediment supplies to adjoining wetlands which formerly offset land subsidence occurring due to compaction of underlying sediments (Day and Templet, 1989);

· where land subsidence occurs due to abstraction of water, natural gas or oil: e.g., as is presently happening in Bangkok and in the northern part of the Netherlands.

In coastal lowlands which are insufficiently defended by sediment supply or embankments, tidal flooding by saline water will tend to penetrate further inland than at present, extending the area of perennially or seasonally saline soils. Where Rhizophora mangrove or Phragmites vegetation invades the area, that would over several decades lead to the formation of potential acid sulphate soils. Impedance of drainage from the land by a higher sea level and by the correspondingly higher levels of adjoining estuarine rivers and their levees, will also extend the area of perennially or seasonally reduced soils and increase normal inundation depths and durations in river and estuary basins and on levee backslopes. In sites which become perennially wet, soil organic matter contents will tend to increase, resulting eventually in peat formation. On the other hand, where coastal erosion removes an existing barrier of mineral soils or mangrove forest, higher storm surges associated with a rising sea level could allow sea-water to destroy existing coastal eustatic peat swamps, which might eventually be replaced by freshwater or saltwater lagoons.

The probable response of low-lying coastal areas to a rise in sea level can be estimated in more detail on the basis of the geological and historical evidence of changes that occurred during past periods when sea level was rising eustatically or in response to tectonic or isostatic movements: e.g., around the southern North Sea (Jelgersma, 1988); in the Nile delta (Stanley, 1988); on the coastal plain of the Guyanas (Brinkman and Pons, 1968); in the Musi delta of Sumatera (Brinkman, 1987). Contemporary evidence is available in areas where land levels have subsided as a result of recent abstraction of water, natural gas or oil from sediments underlying coastal lowlands. Further studies of such contemporary and palaeoenvironments are needed together with location-specific studies in order to better understand the change processes, identify appropriate responses and assess their technical, ecological and socio-economic implications (e.g., Warrick and Farmer, 1990).


Some major and widespread soil changes expected as a result of any global change are positive, especially the gradual increases in soil fertility and physical qualities consequent on increased atmospheric CO2 The increased productivity and water-use efficiency of crops and vegetation, and the generally similar or somewhat higher rainfall indicated by several global circulation models, not fully counteracted by higher evapotranspiration, would be expected to lead to widespread increases in ground cover, and consequently better protection against runoff and erosion.

Major but less widespread soil changes, including greater biological activity and increased extent of periodic reduction in soils, would be expected where permafrost would disappear. In unprotected low-lying coastal areas, gradual encroachment of Rhizophora mangroves or Phragmites following more extensive brackish-water inundation may give rise to the formation of potential acid sulphate soil layers after several decades. Deeper and longer-duration flooding of basins and levee backslopes in adjacent river and estuary plains could lead to more extensive reducing conditions and increased organic matter contents, and locally to peat formation.

Other changes due to climate change (temperature and precipitation) are expected to be relatively well buffered by the mineral composition, the organic matter content or the structural stability of many soils. However, decreases in cover by vegetation or annual or perennial crops, caused by any locally major declines in rainfall not compensated by CO2 effects, could lead to soil structure degradation and decreased porosity, as well as increased runoff and erosion on sloping sites and by the concomitant more extensive and rapid sedimentation. Changes in options available to land users because of climate change may have similar effects.

In certain fragile soils, the nature of the dominant soil-forming process may change for the worse with increased, decreased or more strongly seasonal rainfall.

In most cases, changes in soils by direct human action, on-site or off-site (whether intentional or unintended), are far greater than the direct climate-induced effects. Soil management measures designed to optimize the soil's sustained productive capacity would therefore be generally adequate to counteract any degradation of agricultural land by climate change. Soils of nature areas, or other land with a low intensity of management such as semi-natural forests used for extraction of wood and other products, are less readily protected against the effects of climate change but such soils, too, are threatened less by climate change than by human actions - off-site, such as pollution by acid deposition, or on-site, such as excessive nutrient extraction under very low-input agriculture.

To armour the world's soils against any negative effect of climate change, or against other extremes in external circumstances such as nutrient depletion or excess (pollution), or drought or high-intensity rains, the best that land users could do, would be:

· to manage their soils to give them maximum physical resilience through a stable, heterogeneous pore system by maintaining a closed ground cover as much as possible;

· to use an integrated plant nutrient management system to balance the input and offtake of nutrients over a cropping cycle or over the years, while maintaining soil nutrient levels low enough to minimize losses and high enough to buffer occasional high demands.

An analogous philosophy, at lower levels of external inputs, could be formulated for extensive grazing land and production forest, whether planted or managed natural forest.

Human action and management has been emphasized in these conclusions because most of the world's land is used and, to different degrees, managed rather than under natural conditions.


Critical comments by R. Gommes, F.O. Nachtergaele and D.W. Sanders are gratefully acknowledged.


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