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Complex Soil Systems: An Energetic Exchange

Source:  Boris Faybishenko, Eoin Brodie and Dan Hawkes

ComplexSoilSystmLogoThis past week (September 3-5, 2014), ESD’s Eoin Brodie and Boris Faybishenko co-chaired the first Complex Soil Systems Conference at the David Brower Center in downtown Berkeley. This flagship conference, with the common theme of developing “A Path to Improved Understanding of Complex Soil Systems,” made a unique contribution to integrated soil sciences by addressing soil-science fundamentals and bridging gaps in current scientific knowledge. More than 170 scientists from a variety of backgrounds and 13 different countries attended the conference, representing many scientific fields—including ecology, hydrology, geophysics, agriculture, soil chemistry, soil physics, soil microbiology, and modeling of soil-climate interactions.

One of the conference’s main goals was to provide a motivating framework towards improved understanding of complex soil systems— especially important given the critical role that soils play in sustaining life (including agriculture, water resources, and cycling of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous). “The cross-disciplinary nature of the program and discussions was unusual even with respect to soil conferences—this highlights a necessary shift in how we approach the study of soils” said Brodie. The keynote presentation by John Crawford, Director of the Sustainable Systems program at Rothamsted Research in the UK, highlighted the central economic importance of the service that soils provide for the planet.


Faybishenko described the conference as a turning point for soil science, “For decades, efforts to improve soil sciences have focused largely on conventional scientific and practical methods—which have proved to be obsolete.” The conference showed how modern science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—and in particular, how new approaches to nonlinear dynamics , including chaos and complexity theory—have influenced and could further influence the soil sciences and their practical applications, with implications for agriculture, soil and groundwater remediation, and climate predictions.

Faybishenko also envisions a change in soil science education resulting from conferences like this that “help students learn about modern scientific approaches that span traditional disciplines, and also provide new thinking with regard to how scientific and educational activities can be organized and interact across the United States and other countries.”

The conference was supported by SSSA/Bouyoucos Funds, Berkeley Lab, the Department of Energy, and other sponsors. Both Brodie and Faybishenko wished to give many thanks to ESD administrator Carol Valladao for her work in organizing and coordinating events before and during the conference, and to ESD Division Director Susan Hubbard for her support and invaluable contributions to the preparation of the conference program. Brodie and Faybishenko also acknowledged the help of Sherry Seybold (for website development), Walter Denn and Diana Swantek for graphics preparation, and Dan Hawkes for editing of the conference abstracts and posters.


They also wanted to recognize the many other ESD participants in the conference, including session chairs and co-organizers Peter Nico, Margaret Torn, Bill Riley, Charlie Koven, Deb Agarwal, and Nick Bouskill, in addition to UCB faculty scientists Mary Firestone, Dennis Baldocchi, and Ron Amundson—and other members of the conference organizing committee from different institutions. Many LBNL scientists and UC Berkeley students and postdocs also contributed greatly to the success of the meeting. A special issue of a scientific journal based on the conference presentations is being planned.

For a photo gallery of the event, go to: