December 01, 2009
Text: Cornelia Reichert
The Earth is a living, self-regulating super-organism. When British geochemist James Lovelock presented this concept of the Earth in his Gaia theory in the 1970s, he attracted much praise and much criticism: theologians, esoterics and those seeking meaning welcomed the new holistic perspective. Science, however, rejected the theory and condemned, in particular, Lovelock’s lax use of the concept “life” – after all, the Earth cannot reproduce. But with the intensification of climate research, it has become increasingly clear that the only approach that can work here is a systemic one – the idea of the Earth as a holistic system.
Researchers agree that polar ice, the oceans, the atmosphere and forests are the main protagonists of the global climate system. But what about the soil? It is largely ignored in the standard model calculations, such as those on which the current IPCC World Climate Report of 2007 is based. However, questions such as how the biogeochemical processes below ground react to the fact that the climate is changing and, conversely, how the processes below ground influence the climate must also be explored.
“As a factor in the Earth system, soil is the poor cousin when it comes to research, and we would like to remedy this,” says Markus Reichstein, who heads a research group at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena. “I believe that soil has thus far been significantly underestimated as a climate factor.”
Since his student days, Markus Reichstein’s main focus has been the world beneath his feet. He studied landscape ecology at the University of Münster and researched humus in the mountain soils of Davos, Switzerland for his degree. Today, he also seeks to understand the processes that take place below ground through theoretical approaches. Since 2006, the junior researcher and his team have been developing possible models for the role of soil in the climate system.
Their work is highly regarded throughout the world. For example, the journal Science Watch from the Institute for Science Information (ISI) in Philadelphia regularly publishes statistics on who is leading the science race. On its website, Reichstein has been dubbed a “rising star in the field of environmental science and ecology.”