Soil provides the main foundation for human activity and housing. It is a limited and fragile resource, that Europe's environment policy seeks to protect.
Soil data and information are relevant for a number of EU policy areas: food security, agriculture, soil protection, bio-energy, water protection, nature protection, development policy, health and sustainable development. The JRC supports the EU Thematic Strategy for Soil Protection, which addresses these different policy areas in a coherent manner and proposes a framework for effective soil protection in Europe.
The JRC uses advanced modelling techniques, indicators and scenario analyses to provide soil information to end users in relation to the major threats to soil, identified in the Thematic Strategy for Soil Protection: erosion, decline of organic matter, compaction, salinisation, landslides, sealing, contamination and loss of soil biodiversity.
Soil erosion is a natural process, occurring over geological time, which is essential for soil formation. The concerns about erosion are related to its acceleration mostly as a result of human activity including land use and farming practices, but also as a result of climate change. By removing the most fertile topsoil, erosion reduces soil productivity and, where soils are shallow, may lead to an irreversible loss of natural farmland. Using modelling techniques, the JRC assesses the state of soil erosion at the European level, and provides estimates of the overall costs attributable to erosion under present and likely future conditions.
Soil organic matter
Soil organic carbon is the major component of soil organic matter that improves the physical properties of soil, as it stores a great proportion of nutrients necessary for plant growth.
The annual rate of loss of organic matter can vary depending on natural factors (climate, soil parent material, land cover, vegetation and topography) and human activities (land use, management and degradation). The European Soil Database, at a scale of 1:1 000 000, is one of the most homogeneous and comprehensive databases on the organic carbon/matter content of European soils. It also includes information from associated databases on land cover, climate and topography.
Soil compaction is a form of physical degradation resulting in the densification and distortion of the soil to the extent that biological activity, porosity and permeability are reduced and soil structure is partly destroyed. Compaction can reduce water infiltration capacity and thereby increase the risk of erosion through accelerated run-off. The compaction process can be initiated by wheels, tracks, rollers or by the passage of animals. In order to define appropriate soil use and cultivation techniques, it is necessary to identify which soil is susceptible to compaction. The JRC is involved in the development of a European map of the soil's natural susceptibility to compaction.
Soil salinisation affects an estimated 1 to 3 million hectares in the EU, mainly in the Mediterranean countries. Salinisation, resulting from human interventions such as inappropriate irrigation practices, leads to an excessive increase of water-soluble salts in the soil. It is a serious form of soil degradation and is regarded as a major cause of desertification. The JRC provides maps and data on soil salinisation to help understand and tackle this issue.
A landslide is the gravitational movement of a mass of rock, earth or debris down a slope that can be triggered by natural processes such as heavy or prolonged rainfall, earthquakes and rapid snowmelt, or by human activities such as the construction of roads and buildings, land use changes or irrigation. In areas affected by landslides, mainly mountainous and hilly regions, these processes are a major source of soil erosion and sediment yield to valleys and rivers, and result in significant damage to infrastructure and property. Nowadays, population growth and expansion into landslide-prone areas raises the landslide risk in Europe. In addition, climate change is expected to lead to an increase in the number of landslides associated with extreme rainfall events in the future.
Soil sealing leads to the loss of soil resources due to the covering of land for housing, roads or other construction work. The greatest impacts of soil sealing can be seen in urban and metropolitan areas.
The JRC is assessing soil sealing in Europe and will provide guidelines on best practices to limit, mitigate or compensate soil sealing.
Soil contamination is the occurrence of pollutants, particularly man-made chemicals, in soil above a certain level, which leads to a deterioration in or loss of one or more soil functions. The most common chemicals involved in soil contamination are petroleum hydrocarbons, solvents, pesticides, lead and other heavy metals. The occurrence of this phenomenon is correlated with the degree of industrialisation and intensity of chemical usage.
The JRC works on indicators and risk assessment references for soil contamination. It also develops reference materials for different types of soil, sludge amended soil, sewage sludge of domestic and industrial origin certified for major and trace elements as well as organic contaminants.