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New atlas highlights the value of Europe's soil biodiversity and reveals how it is under threat

The European Commission's own research body, the Joint Research Centre, published yesterday, for the first time, an indicator-based map of potential threats to soil biodiversity, in order to guide decision-makers in protecting this crucial resource. The biodiversity within our soils plays a vital role in agriculture and in the water and carbon cycle. The atlas highlights areas within Europe where soil biodiversity is most at risk of decline relative to the current situation – notably parts of the UK, the Benelux countries and Northern France, although there are areas of high risk also in several other Member States. It provides a comprehensive source of information for researchers, policy makers and teachers. It will be launched at the conference 'Soil, Climate Change and Biodiversity – Where do we stand?' (Brussels, 23 & 24 September 2010).

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science and Janez Potočnik, Commissioner for Environment, said: "Soil is essential to the biodiversity which makes life on earth possible and keeps our economies sustainable. Soil degradation threatens our access to food, clean air and water, as well as to many crucial raw materials. This atlas is a major European contribution to the UN's International Year of Biodiversity 2010. It will raise awareness about the need for the Soil Framework Directive the Commission first proposed in 2006 and help prevent further soil degradation and repair the damage already done. Unless we tackle this problem soon and in a coordinated manner, it will cost a lot more to put it right."

The European Atlas of Soil Biodiversity includes the first ever threat map for soil biodiversity covering most EU Member States1. Potential threats to soil biodiversity were selected and ranked in an expert evaluation organised by the Soil Biodiversity Working Group, established by the JRC. Multiple pressure factors were included in the calculation of the new indicator map of potential threats, including land use change, habitat disruption, intensive human exploitation, invasive species, soil compaction, erosion and pollution.

The map indicates an evaluation of the potential risk of soil biodiversity decline - with respect to the current situation - and is not a representation of the actual level of soil biodiversity. The results show that the risk of decline in soil biodiversity due to human induced pressures tends to be highest in areas of high population density and/or intense agricultural activity. The regions most affected are particularly concentrated in the UK (several parts except the most northern), the Benelux countries and Northern France. However, specific areas in several other Member States, often with the same characteristics are also identified as high risk – for example the Po valley in Italy, the only region in that country to fall into the high risk categories.

The JRC's atlas also introduces the reader to "life below ground". It brings to the public view the whole range of life in the soil and the crucial role it plays in maintaining other ecosystems. It includes new research results on current threats to soil biodiversity.

This 128-page atlas is the result of collaboration between departments of the European Commission and partners from academia, industry and organisations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Each section is written by leading world experts and presented in a way accessible to non-specialists.

The first section of the atlas examines the soil environment, its multiple uses, the ecosystem "goods and services" that it provides, and the role that the soil biota play in these. The second is a kind of encyclopaedia of soil biodiversity, with high resolution images bringing the reader face to face with many of the main groups of organisms found in soils.

For more information:

on the European Atlas of Soil Biodiversity:

on the Conference 'Soil, Climate Change and Biodiversity – Where do we stand?':

on EU's soil policy:

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Some questions the atlas answers

What kind of life is there in soil?

The remarkable diversity of life in soils ranges from the familiar earthworms and beetles to microscopic bacteria, fungi and protozoa such as amoebae. There can be tens of thousands of species of bacteria in just one handful of soil.

What is its economic and ecological value?

The economic value of soil biology is derived from its ecological value. The soil biota play a vital role in soil fertility with a strong effect on crop productivity. Furthermore, it helps clean our water and air. If we had to perform these activities artificially it would cost trillions of euros annually.

What is special about soil biology?

Soil biology exists within the dark world below ground and is often too small to even see. However, processes carried out by organisms within the soil can function on a global scale and are vital for supporting organisms which live above ground, including humans.

How do our activities affect soil ecosystems?

Many human activities affect the soil system. The construction of buildings and towns can lead to compaction and loss of soil by sealing it with concrete. Invasive species have also been introduced into new areas, often in the soils of plants transported around the world for use in gardens. This is to the detriment of native soil species. A map of human induced pressures on the soil biota is presented, for the first time, within this atlas.

What are the links between soil biota and climate change?

Soils hold more than twice the amount of carbon as is currently in the atmosphere. Life within the soil is one of the main factors affecting whether soil acts as a carbon source (emits carbon) or as a carbon sink (absorbs carbon). Many of the interactions between the soil, atmosphere and climate are still relatively poorly understood and this area needs further research.

Cyprus, Sweden and Finland are not included due to a lack of data

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