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TED Audiences get the Dirt on Soil and Climate Change from Berhe

September 3, 2019
Professor Berhe reaches a large audience in person and virtually. Photo courtesy of TED.

Soil is one of the foundations of life on Earth and could be an important part of the solution to climate change, if only we can stop treating it like dirt.

That’s the message Professor Asmeret Asefaw Berhe shared with a global audience when she became the only current UC Merced researcher to give a TED Talk at this year’s annual TED conference. The video of her discussion “What’s Soil Got to do with Climate Change?” is available today (click the link to see the video).

TED — which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design — is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks. Each year’s conference features a dazzling array of experts, which puts UC Merced’s Berhe in the company of global thought leaders.

“Professor Berhe’s research program is creative, vibrant and vital to understanding the complexity of climate change,” School of Natural Sciences Dean Betsy Dumont said. “Her combination of scientific accomplishments and dynamic style make her an excellent ambassador for this critical global challenge. Likewise, we are thrilled to see her represent UC Merced on TED’s high-profile stage.”

Conference attendees are as likely to see a celebrity as they are to hear from an entrepreneur, a neuroscientist, an artist — or to meet former Vice President Al Gore at the annual gathering, which Berhe did.

“I think proper management of soil and land resources is one of the most important things that human communities should do to address issues of climate change, and food and nutritional security of the growing human population,’” she said. “When I received the invitation to speak at TED, I was thrilled to be the one speaking for soil, and set out to ensure that soil gets the kind of attention it deserves.”

Professor Berhe delivers her TED Talk. Photo courtesy of TED.

In her Soil Biogeochemistry Lab, Berhe and the students and postdoctoral scholars she mentors study the ways soil regulates the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere by controlling the flow of greenhouse gases between land and the atmosphere. They focus most of their work on improving our understanding of the amount, nature, stability and stabilization mechanisms of organic matter in the soil system.

That’s why she knows that one of the most important solutions to the challenges posed by climate change is right under our feet, as she told her audience. Soil has the power to shape our planet’s destiny because the thin veil of soil covering the planet’s surface represents the difference between life and lifelessness on land.

Apparently the leaders of TED recognized that and chose to include Berhe in the spring conference entitled “Bigger Than Us,” dealing with topics everyone should care about, such as truth, power, immigration, knowledge and mind shifts. Some of the recommendations from the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report are similar to key points in Berhe’s TED talk.

The weeklong TED event offers thousands of people the chance to see the individual speakers participate in expert-led workshops and hands-on activities and try to develop their own solutions to the challenges facing the world.

“I was honored to be selected to speak on a topic that I care a lot about,” Berhe said. “Soils are beautiful, and I hope this helps even one person take a moment to appreciate the soil that we mostly take for granted, and contribute to ensuring a sustainable future for the soil resource.”