Soil degradation is a worsening global phenomenon driven by socio-economic pressures, poor land management practices and climate change. A deterioration of soil structure at timescales ranging from seconds to centuries is implicated in most forms of soil degradation including the depletion of nutrients and organic matter, erosion and compaction. New soil-crop models that could account for soil structure dynamics at decadal to centennial timescales would provide insights into the relative importance of the various underlying physical (e.g. tillage, traffic compaction, swell/shrink and freeze/thaw) and biological (e.g. plant root growth, soil microbial and faunal activity) mechanisms, their impacts on soil hydrological processes and plant growth, as well as the relevant timescales of soil degradation and recovery. However, the development of such a model remains a challenge due to the enormous complexity of the interactions in the soil-plant system. In this paper, we focus on the impacts of biological processes on soil structure dynamics, especially the growth of plant roots and the activity of soil fauna and microorganisms. We first define what we mean by soil structure and then review current understanding of how these biological agents impact soil structure. We then develop a new framework for modelling soil structure dynamics, which is designed to be compatible with soil-crop models that operate at the soil profile scale and for long temporal scales (i.e. decades, centuries). We illustrate the modelling concept with a case study on the role of root growth and earthworm bioturbation in restoring the structure of a severely compacted soil.
Keywords: biological processes; degradation; dynamics; modelling; soil; structure.
© 2020 The Authors. Global Change Biology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.