USF Scientist Tracks Dirt Path To Sustainable Future

Christian Wells uses a lot of dirty words in talking about his passion.

Top soil erosion, organic matter, acidification, deposition processes, slope stability, desertification.

But Wells doesn't just talk dirt -- he literally digs it, studies it, compares it, teaches it, and applies his findings to different places and historical periods, including Florida and its long-term future.

Wells, 35, is a Mesoamerican archaeologist, a Ph.D, associate professor of anthropology and director of the new Office of Sustainability at the University of South Florida. That's a mouthful, and Wells is using his unique skill-set to help us better understand how the earth under our feet is critical to our health today and to entire societies a century from now.

The proof is in the historical record of soil, or more to the point, its mismanagement by people.

"The global top soil issue is very serious,'' says Wells, who in August began his work as the university's new sustainability director.  "Because without productive soil there is no agricultural capacity or ability to grow food … if you erode your resource base you can't continue to persist."

As an environmental archaeologist, Wells' scholarly interests include cultural and ecological aspects of long-term environmental systems interrelated with people. His studies involve the influence of the environmental worldview on political decisions, and how economic development must embrace environmental concerns.

"I think that soil and land are key variables that we need to pay particular attention to in the coming years because without soil, there would be no plants, and without plants, there would be no animals -- including humans," Wells says. "The fact is that soil degradation has been accelerating rapidly over the past century as agriculture has become agribusiness in the global economy."

Pursuing Global Sustainability

The Office of Sustainability is the single point-of-contact for sustainable activities at USF, and follows the university's 2008 pledge with the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment. With this pledge, USF joins other leading institutions in an effort to find sustainable solutions to critical issues such as global warming, energy independence, and other environmental concerns affecting our economy, health, and social well-being.

Global sustainability involves a cross-section of fields that include geography, chemistry, botany, geology, ethnography, and even economics. About 50 professors in a variety of studies are involved at USF.

"It's unique because sustainability views people as part of nature,'' he says, "and not apart from nature.''

Wells also directs the Cultural Soilscapes Research Group, a cross-disciplinary, faculty-student effort to study the relationship of people and soil from an anthropological perspective. As an associate professor, he teaches two undergraduate courses, one called "Soil and Culture,'' and another known simply as "Dirt.''

Part of his interest in the Tampa Bay region includes the study of what he calls "green fields'' and "brown fields,'' areas in which the soil is arable and healthy and those that are blighted by overuse or contaminated, respectively.

"This has become a real issue in cities throughout the country," he says. "My main concern in Tampa is the continued sprawl and more and more brown fields.''

Wells' research and his concerns about soil run deep. He seeks to understand the land-use legacies established by prehistoric agrarian communities and the consequences of those legacies for contemporary farmers in less-developed countries. One of his primary contributions has been to demonstrate the varying small-scale chemical changes to soil surfaces caused by ancient populations, which has led to new ways of detecting and studying human impacts on landscapes. Over the past 15 years, he conducted field research in Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, with funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society.

"As the world's population soars to new heights, an increasingly vexing problem for us all is how to go about feeding ourselves," he says, "and how to do so without ruining our soil, water, air, and other resources."

Adding To Soil Erosion

In the last two decades, people worldwide have damaged or degraded nearly 8 million square miles of land -- roughly the size of the United States and Canada -- according to the International Soil Reference and Information Centre in the Netherlands.

Throw in the fact that another 2 billion people will bolster the population in the next two decades, and societies may have far less arable land to grow the estimated 30 percent more food needed to feed them. The problem of increasing food demand and shrinking resources will be particularly acute in third world countries.

"The extent of soil degradation worldwide is hard to measure," Wells says. "A recent study by the United Nations reports that, between 1945 and 1990, nearly 40 percent of the world's cropland was degraded. The number is much higher where I work in Central America -- about 75 percent. And, not surprisingly, the issue is often closely linked to poverty."

Wells sees a sort of "perfect storm'' of soil problems heading our way.

"You look at population increases, outstretched resources, massive erosion, and a loss of soil fertility,'' he says about the overall global landscape. "We don't have enough arable land to feed our growing population.''

Is this just happening now, or have past societies suffered by misusing their soil? Wells perks up, and offers a laundry list of peoples who had to deal with food security and sustainable production. Their overuse of the land led directly or in directly to political and social problems, and in some cases, the very decay of their civilizations. The list includes the Incas, Aztecs, Maya, Mesopotamians, Romans, and early Egyptians. Wells believes we can learn from their mistakes.

"Archaeology affords a unique 'deep-time' perspective on these issues," he says. "It allows us to study the problem of soil degradation from the very beginning all the way up to the present. This way, we can see how people have interacted with the land and what the long lasting legacies of those interactions are. We can see what has worked -- and what has not."

Kurt Loft is a Tampa-based freelance writer and former science reporter for The Tampa Tribune. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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