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Institute of Soil Landscape Research

Institute of Land Use Systems

Institute of Landscape Biogeochemistry

Institute of Landscape Systems Analysis

Institute of Landscape Hydrology

Institute of Socio-Economics

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Contribution to Research of ZALF

The aim of our research is to conquer the Grand Societal Challenges by an improved understanding of the development and functionality of soil landscapes, in particular for the purpose of “Mitigation and Adaption to Climate Change“ and to achieve “Global Food Security“. 

The Institute of Soil Landscape Research (BLF) compiles knowledge and options for action by interdisciplinary research in close co-operations with internal and external partners.  
  1. CarboZALF 
    In Core Topic I „Landscape Functioning“, the BLF studies the influence of soil erosion by water, wind and tillage on (i) landscape-scale carbon dynamics, (ii) water flow and matter fluxes in soils, and (iii) dust emissions from soils.
    In CarboZALF2.0 the long-term dynamics of CO2 fluxes and lateral SOC fluxes as well as full C balances will be quantified by field scale experiments and modeling and in cooperation with LBG. Our focus is on erosion-affected landscape-scale „hotspots“, especially strongly eroded soils as well as colluvial, mineral and organic soils in closed depressions (kettle holes). The mechanisms behind carbon stabilization in erosion-affected soil landscapes will be examined in laboratory experiments (also in cooperation with LBG). At the same time, BLF is working on scaling the drivers of CO2 fluxes and C balances from the pedon to the field and catchment scale by means of Digital Soil
    Soll Christianenhof.png 
    Mapping. Our medium-term goal is to quantify the CO2 sinks and sources within soil landscapes, hence the CO2-C sequestration potential, in a spatially explicit manner by comparing the “Carbon Saturation Potential“ with actual SOC patterns.
    The feedbacks of soil erosion on vertical and lateral water flows, carbon, and nutrient fluxes are analysed in the TERENO observatory “Nordostdeutsches Tiefland” (SoilCan, VAMOS, TEROS) in close co-operation with HGF partners (GFZ, UFZ). Special emphasis is given to preferential flow and interactions with aggregate surfaces as well as to lateral water flow in catchments of kettle holes.

    BLF studies the impacts of land use-driven wind erosion and dust emissions
    both in Brandenburg as well as in semi-arid regions of China and Argentina. The drivers and the dynamics causing dust emissions from soils (< 10 μm) are considered particularly relevant. The related lateral carbon and nutrient fluxes are investigated in soil landscapes of the province La Pampa (Argentina) which is strongly affected by land-use change, i.e. by the conversion of forest and grassland to arable land. Finally, new experimental and modelling approaches of so-called “Soil Landscape Evolution Modelling” are deployed to quantify the impact of historical land-use changes on soil erosion and, by extension, on long-term soil landscape evolution.

  2. In Core Topic II „Land Use and Impact“, BLF analyses the trends of soil
    fertility in long-term field trials (BonaRes) as well as the interrelationship between soil erosion, soil fertility, and yield levelling. In the project SiliconZALF BLF clarifies the importance of silicon in agricultural biogeosystems.

  3. BLF supports Core Topic III „Conflicts & Governance“ by knowledge transfer regarding soil erosion and carbon dynamics in agricultural landscapes.

The “AgroScapeLab Quillow“ – representing a typical landscape for hummocky ground moraines - build the most important research platform for BLF. Staffs from the Agricultural Landscape Data Centre (DZA) together with Institute’s technicians maintain the technical facilities of the long-term projects CarboZALF, TEROS, VAMOS and SoilCan (TERENO). ZALF’s central laboratory provides outstanding research support in the form of routine analyses.


Research Areas

The Institute of Soil Landscape Research is structured into four research areas: i) Soil Erosion, ii) Dynamics of Soil Fertility, iii) Hydropedology and iv) Digital Soil Mapping & Soil Landscape Modelling. These areas build on each other and share tightly coupled experiments, long-term measurements, methods development and modelling.


Soil Erosion

Contact: Dr. Roger Funk (wind), Dr. Detlef Deumlich (water)

water erosion 
Worldwide soil erosion is still regarded as the major global threat for the natural resource “soil”. The topic is linked directly to global food security and – through indirect feedback –to climate change (see CarboZALF, Core Topic I). In this research area we explore both the scientific basis of the dynamics and the drivers of soil erosion as well as solutions for a soil conserving land-use system.
BLF studies soil erosion by water, wind and tillage. Our research is characterized by (i) the coupling of field and lab experiments (wind tunnel) with modelling, and (ii) strong national (GFZ, U Augsburg, UFZ) and international networking (Belgium, China, Argentina).

Currently, one important focus is on fine dust emissions from soils: First of all
because of the direct link to the soil fertility decline observed in semi-arid regions, second because of the suspected influence of soil-borne dust on cloud formation in the upper atmosphere. It has been shown that soil dust initiates ice nucleation at higher temperatures compared to the dominant, quarz-rich dusts of global deserts. Furthermore, concerns exist about a transport of antibiotica-resistant pathogenic bacteria via fine dust emissions from arable soils into global circulation. However, evidence in support of the latter has yet to be produced.

In the context of soil erosion by water BLF focusses on new approaches to quantify rain erosivity, e.g., by precipitation radar. The RADOLAN data from German Weather Service are tested as basic input data for models like Erosion-3D. Furthermore observed local erosion events can be related to rainfall intensities in a retrospective manner by these data. Soil tillage experiments are performed in combination with different tracer techniques to quantify tillage erosion rates. Spatial modelling of tillage erosion is improved by a structure analysis based on high resolution digital elevation models (DEM1).


Dynamics of Soil Fertility

Contact: Prof. Dr. Wilfried Hierold (BonaRes), PD Dr. Ruth H. Ellerbrock (carbon), Dr. Axel Höhn (silicon)

An adequate level of soil fertility is the foundation of any sustainable intensification of agricultural production. Special importance belongs to soil organic matter (SOM) and nutrient status of soils. A systematic analysis of the complex relationships between soil degradation, e.g., by soil erosion, and soil fertility parameters has so far been conducted primarily in plot and field trials. Long-term studies of drainage basins or at the landscape scale are quite rare. Basic questions about the transferability of plot scale results to landscapes, ie into agricultural practices, are still open to debate.
Therefore BLF examines the interconnectedness of erosion, soil fertility, and yield levelling, inter alia in the BonaRes Centre.

The effects of SOM on soil fertility as well as transport processes in soils and landscapes depend not only on its content, but composition. Here, BLF successfully applied Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy which allows a characterization of SOM functional groups. These are directly related to important soil properties, like hydrophobicity and cation exchange capacity. In combination with FTIR microscopy the spatial distribution of SOM composition even along preferential flow paths can be depicted.
We investigate SOM composition and its distribution within soil profiles and landscapes to obtain parameters which improve our understanding of transport processes. Furthermore we are interested in the influence of soil erosion on SOM composition and quality.

With regard to long-term development of soil fertility, certain nutrients such as silicon have not been previously considered. With its groundwork on project SiliconZALF, BLF has now developed the methodological-analytical basics needed for the analysis of agricultural biogeosystems. In a first tier Si cycling of winter wheat is analysed with a focus on biogenic Si pools in soils. Action options will be developed in cooperation with practitioners if applicable.



Contact: PD Dr. Horst H. Gerke

Hydropedology studies the interactions between pedologic and hydrologic properties and processes. At the pedon scale, soil structural properties (e.g., geometry, clay-organic coatings, and linings along worm burrows) are analysed to determine the mass exchange coefficients in numerical two-region models of preferential flow and transport. These models are used to explain the pedon-scale local non-equilibrium in pressure head and solute concentration between macropores and porous matrix. For soil landscapes, erosion-affected changes in soil hydraulic properties are characterized by a relief position-dependent thickness of major soil horizons and the distance between soil surface and parent material. Hydraulic non-equilibrium at field and landscape scale can occur when larger soil regions are bypassed during surface runoff or lateral subsurface flow along soil horizon and sediment layer boundaries. Water is accumulating in topographic depressions (i.e., kettle holes) from where it infiltrates or discharges through subsurface drains towards ditches and streams. Lateral subsurface flow will be studied by comparing observed 1D vertical flux in lysimeters with simulations of 2D cross sectional fluxes. A 3D soil model describing the spatial structure of the soil solid phase distribution will allow generating distributed parameters for the simulation of the effects of erosional changes in soil landscape structure on fluxes.

In this research area BLF initiated joint long-term research projects with the German Research Centre GFZ, Potsdam and the Centre for Environmental Research UFZ, Leipzig-Halle as part of the Helmholtz Initiative TERENO (Terrestrial Environmental Observatories). Extensive investments have been made to establish the „AgroScapeLab Quillow“. To quantify the long-term changes of water flow and matter fluxes as a result of climate change, BLF and the GFZ has installed twelve lysimeters of undisturbed soils which cover the full range of erosion and deposition (joint project “SoilCan”). In cooperation with the UFZ, so-called “VAMOS” lysimeters (Vadose Zone Monitoring System), were installed for the purpose of in situ quantification of lateral water flows. In addition, the drainage basin of a kettle hole was equipped for a long-term erosion and SOC monitoring (lateral flows) in close co-operation with GFZ and Augsburg University (TEROS).



Digital Soil Mapping & Soil Landscape Modelling

Contact: N.N., Prof. Dr. Michael Sommer

Research on the effects of land use and land-use change, their feedback processes on soils and management options has to meet the challenges of spatial heterogeneity on the landscape scale, hence the structure of soil landscapes. Existing approaches of spatial modelling of process-relevant state variables in landscapes demand an expanded range of methods in “Digital Soil Mapping“ (DSM). In this respect BLF tests new remote sensing instruments that capture cross-field heterogeneity, such as helicopter-supported gamma-spectrometry (co-operation with BGR, University Bonn) as well as multi-temporal remote sensing (VisNIR, Thermal-IR), via satellites (e.g., RapidEye) and ZALF’s own UAS.

New spectrometric techniques for in-situ imaging at the pedon scale (VisNIR, P-XRF, FTIR along undisturbed soil cores) allow a high resolution imaging of state variables like SOC, SOM quality, and element distributions. The next step requires a cross-scale integration of multisensory data in a spatial soil landscape modelling. The medium-term goal is spatially explicit and high-resolution 3D modelling of process-relevant state variables such as SOC, texture, and soil erosion status at the landscape scale.

To answer soil related questions in the context of global change, e.g. the dynamics of soil degradation by erosion, the quantification of the temporal development of soil landscapes is drawing increased attention. Analogous to the methods of climate research, “hindcasting” approaches to validate models are being sought for the purpose of “forecasting“ soil changes expected in the future. This new research field of “soil landscape evolution modelling“ is expected to play a major role in soil landscape research for the future. Currently, BLF develops a dynamic soil landscape model for hummocky ground moraines in co-operation with Prof. Temme (WUR). The latter model is supported by the quantification of temporal changes in erosion rates as a function of historic land-use changes. Here we apply latest dating approaches for different time scales (240Pu/239Pu, cosmogenic nuclides) in close co-operation with Prof. Egli (Zurich University).


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