What if soil could talk?

Luke Richards (Masters student)
Published 12 Feb 2021 
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Bush Heritage Victorian ecologist Julie Radford, Luke Richards, Vanessa Wong (Monash Supervisor), Jacinta Pucinski (Freaklabs).<br/> Bush Heritage Victorian ecologist Julie Radford, Luke Richards, Vanessa Wong (Monash Supervisor), Jacinta Pucinski (Freaklabs).
Luke Richards soil sampling underway at Nardoo Hills.<br/> Luke Richards soil sampling underway at Nardoo Hills.
Sue O'Connor (Bush Heritage President), Glen Norris (Bush Heritage Healthy Landscapes Manager for Victoria), Harley Douglas (Dja Dja Wurrung), Luke Richards, Jacinta Pucinski (Freaklabs).<br/> Sue O'Connor (Bush Heritage President), Glen Norris (Bush Heritage Healthy Landscapes Manager for Victoria), Harley Douglas (Dja Dja Wurrung), Luke Richards, Jacinta Pucinski (Freaklabs).

Soil: often misunderstood yet critically important to a healthy planet. Monash University Masters student Luke Richards explores how we can understand soil better.

Way back at the beginning of 2020, when COVID19 was only just becoming a feature of our daily lives, Bush Heritage Science Manager Dr. Kate Fitzherbert and I began discussing gaps in conservation that had been crying out for dedicated research.

The goal was to develop a topic to explore through my 12-month Master’s thesis with Monash University that would not only benefit Bush Heritage Australia, but rather the entirety of conservation practitioners and restorative land managers around the country and perhaps even the world.

Throughout our conversations, common themes began to arise.

In an increasingly digitised world, conservation technology seemed like an inevitable base for the project.

Technology is nothing without context however. What service would this technology provide land-managers? Which knowledge gaps might it fill?

To address this, we may look to the philosophies on ecological connectedness from Aldo Leopold (1949) and John Muir (1901), the logic of Hairston’s (1960) Green World Hypothesis or simply the outline of Aguilar’s (1999) Holistic Ecosystem Health Indicator framework. All of these pivotal texts point to one critical yet oft-forgotten element of the natural world.

Soil. Or more specifically, soil health.

Soil is the foundation upon which all life on Earth is built. It plays a pivotal role in any and all terrestrial environmental restorations.

Added to this is soil’s direct influence over the world’s food and fiber, along with numerous other ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and water purification.

Clearly soil is of the utmost importance to the natural world of which we are a part of. Yet we understand relatively little about soil health.

What impacts soil health? What improves it? And for that matter, what is soil health?

Although an internationally agreed upon definition is yet to exist, we may broadly consider soil health to be its continued capacity to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. To this function, the health and resilience of soil’s interconnected physical, biological and chemical traits are of the utmost importance.

This is an important piece of the puzzle that has often been neglected in practice. All three of these pillars must function properly in order for the soil to be considered holistically “healthy”.

Which leads us to the complexity of soil sampling.

As detailed by Ibanez et al (1993) and Johns (2015), traditional soil monitoring and sampling methods are untimely, laborious, complex and expensive making adoption on country low.

The net result of this has contributed to Australia’s declining soil health along with, perhaps even more worryingly, a decline in community knowledge about soil health (Johns, 2015). Due to a lack of resources, land is regularly managed without a proper understanding of the health of its foundation, risking chronic vulnerability to desertification, drought and invasive species (White & Barbercheck, 2012).

With this we had our problem statement.

How can the three interconnected components – physical, biological and chemical - of soil health be monitored at low cost, in real time and with the least labour?

Over a series of blog posts I hope to bring you along on the journey to uncovering a solution to this complex yet critical problem. You’ll be introduced to our wireless sensor network and the realm of open-source technology as you meet plenty of smiling faces from the worlds of technology and soil science.

Over time I hope you’ll come to see this project as more than simply an exploration into soil health and wireless technology. Instead, I hope you’ll see this project as an example of how true open collaboration across disciplines can achieve feats far greater than any one siloed expert or closed approach could ever dream of doing.

In my next post I’ll introduce you to the superstars of open-source environmental monitoring, Freaklabs!

I look forward to bringing you along for the ride.

Bush Heritage Victorian ecologist Julie Radford, Luke Richards, Vanessa Wong (Monash Supervisor), Jacinta Pucinski (Freaklabs).<br/> Bush Heritage Victorian ecologist Julie Radford, Luke Richards, Vanessa Wong (Monash Supervisor), Jacinta Pucinski (Freaklabs).
Luke Richards soil sampling underway at Nardoo Hills.<br/> Luke Richards soil sampling underway at Nardoo Hills.
Sue O'Connor (Bush Heritage President), Glen Norris (Bush Heritage Healthy Landscapes Manager for Victoria), Harley Douglas (Dja Dja Wurrung), Luke Richards, Jacinta Pucinski (Freaklabs).<br/> Sue O'Connor (Bush Heritage President), Glen Norris (Bush Heritage Healthy Landscapes Manager for Victoria), Harley Douglas (Dja Dja Wurrung), Luke Richards, Jacinta Pucinski (Freaklabs).