Researchers plan for soil deep dives

·4 min read

Oct. 5—University of Idaho researchers are planning to construct a facility capable of studying soils at greater depths than anywhere else in the world with a $18.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The project to build a Deep Soil Ecotron on campus is among 10 other scientific endeavors in the country to receive funding this year from the foundation's Mid-scale Research Infrastructure program targeting the development of cutting-edge facilities.

When complete, the facility will allow scientists to capture hefty columns of soil as much as 3 meters below the ground, or about 10 feet. Current methods of studying soils involve digging pits, which disrupt ecosystems as they're uncovered.

The "eco-units" will be equipped with various sensors to monitor temperature, moisture and atmospheric gas concentrations, according to Michael Strickland, the project's lead principal investigator.

"A lot of times we might go out and get a soil core and bring it back to the lab to measure it," Strickland said. "But this allows us to examine, for example, carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases at depth and learn how those might influence the soil below and above it."

Each unit in the Ecotron will have plants above the ground and organisms such as insects and microbes beneath the ground. As a microbial ecologist, Strickland is interested in understanding how microscopic communities change through soil depth and adapt to environmental change.

When depth is increased by just half a meter, he says the microbial communities in soil transition to be distinctly different from those above ground.

"We'll be able to study how deep soils respond to change, which is something we don't have a clear understanding of at this point," he said. "A lot of our estimates on how soils will respond to change aren't being accounted for in future predictions."

Not only will researchers be able to sample and observe, the facility will allow different variables in each unit to be controlled and manipulated.

Co-lead investigator Zachary Kayler, who's conducted experiments at the Ecotron in France, said they've already discovered a great potential to store carbon below the top layer of soil.

Soil carbon tends to decline with depth, so most carbon lies on the surface.

"We're able to go where people have not been able to before, in terms of understanding deep soil processes," he said. "There could be the next microbial community that contributes to medicine."

Of the 13 other facilities of this type that exist around the world, just one is located in the United States, and none go to the depths planned at UI. According to Kayler, the Ecotron will be a unique resource not only for the region but for the international scientific community.

The Ecotron will be housed at the university's JW Martin Laboratory on West Sixth Street. Renovation is expected to begin in 2022.

"It's a no-brainer having it here where we're embedded within an agricultural community and forestry lands," Kayler said. "It's a big deal for Moscow, and, we think, the rest of the state."

The project also follows in the footsteps of previous research efforts at the university, including the Idaho Center for Plant and Soil Health and the Idaho Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment.

A graduate, and perhaps an undergraduate, program associated with the facility will also be developed, according to Strickland. He wants to help students understand project management and what it takes to get this sort of infrastructure up and running.

"It's a really good opportunity for students to become well versed in the natural sciences," Strickland said. "We need more of these kinds of environmental science projects in the future."

Other collaborators on the project include scientists at the University of Colorado, University of Delaware, University of Hawaii, North Dakota State University, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and University of Wyoming.

With the help of other institutions, a variety of soils can be studied, from the loess found on the Palouse to soils brought in from the desert or tropics.

"There are a lot of solutions we can bring up to the surface, if you will," Kayler said. "It will only be limited by the imagination of the people that bring their questions to the facility."

Palermo can be reached at or on Twitter @apalermotweets.

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