Weathering research

The University of Sheffield is to lead an international research consortium into weathering thanks to a £1.74m grant from the Natural Environment Research Council.

Sheffield, along with the Universities of Leeds and Bristol, and in partnership with Pennsylvania State University and other associates in the USA, hopes to establish a global understanding of how weathering is affected by natural and human activities.

The newly funded consortium brings together biologists, geologists, chemists, engineers, materials scientists, physicists and mathematical modellers to understand the process of weathering. Weathering is a key natural process that transforms rock to soil and unlocks nutrients for forest, grassland and agricultural production.

The research will develop new methods adopted from nanotechnology and molecular biology to improve the management of the whole life cycle of soil – from its formation to its depletion. The scientists will track how plant energy captured from sunlight is directed through roots and soil fungi to extract the elements that nourish ecosystems.

The four university partners are all members of the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN). The WUN, along with support for USA partners from the National Science Foundation, provides development funding for the project and is planning to support an international effort to better manage the Earth´s `Critical Zone´, the area between bedrock and the tree-tops that supports life. Soil within the critical zone is now a limited resource because it is being eroded and lost by urbanisation nearly 100 times faster than it is being formed naturally.

Dr. David Pilsbury, Executive Director of the WUN, emphasised: “Weathering and soil erosion is a serious environmental issue that we need to better understand. Working collectively will allow the consortium to move out of traditional science areas to create a new integrated, international and interdisciplinary approach to tackling this critical issue.”

Professor Steve Banwart, who is leading the research project at the University of Sheffield, added: “We have proven capacity to conduct world-class research in many relevant areas, but with this award we have established a unique interdisciplinary group that will allow us to build on this expertise but also conduct critical new research.”