for National Geographic News
"Biodiversity" evokes lush, tropical forests teeming with animals and carpeted with vibrant vegetation. But for many scientists and soil specialists, biodiversity signifies the wet, clammy muck beneath the forest floor.
That muck, they say, is the last frontier in the science of biodiversity, and it deserves international conservation focus.
Just below the Earth's surface, tens of thousands of bacteria, fungi, bugs, and worms wait to be discovered and studied. These organisms are believed to allow trees, grasses, and crops to grow, to make water potable, and to regulate the climate.
Scientists are concerned that these organisms will disappear before they are even studied.
"For the last several decades, due to human activities, soil fertility has been degrading at an alarming rate in many parts of the world, particularly in tropical countries," said Mike Swift, of the Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Institute in Nairobi, Kenya.
Swift is managing the U.S. $22 million project, titled Conservation and Sustainable Management of Below Ground Biodiversity, for the United Nations Environment Programme with funding from the Global Environment Facility, the Rockefeller Foundation, and other donors. The study examines the sub-surface scientific frontier and how it can be managed and conserved in tropical agricultural landscapes.
The project involves Brazil, Côte d'Ivoire, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, and Uganda. These seven countries have a commitment to intensify agriculture to enhance food production and economic status.
Project scientists hope to determine how these countries can increase their agricultural production and conserve below ground biodiversity, which is believed to be crucial to the maintenance of a healthy planet.
Benefits of Soil Critters
For example, earthworms, termites, and other soil-burrowing organisms influence the amount of rainwater soils can absorb. Soils depleted in such organisms are more drought-prone and at risk for catastrophic runoff. This in turn increases the risk of flooding and erosion, and affects river water quality and habitats such as coral reefs.
Bacteria and fungi help to eliminate pollutants and disease-causing germs from groundwater as it percolates through the soil to reservoirs, boreholes, and other sources of drinking water.
Organisms living in soil play a key role in the release of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases from the land to the atmosphere. The interaction of climate change and soil degradation will probably aggravate conditions.
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