A knowledge-based approach to estimating the magnitude and spatial patterns of potential threats to soil biodiversity

Because of the increasing pressures exerted on soil, below-ground life is under threat. Knowledge-based rankings of potential threats to different components of soil biodiversity were developed in order to assess the spatial distribution of threats on a European scale. A list of 13 potential threats to soil biodiversity was proposed to experts with different backgrounds in order to assess the potential for three major components of soil biodiversity: soil microorganisms, fauna, and biological functions. This approach allowed us to obtain knowledge-based rankings of threats. These classifications formed the basis for the development of indices through an additive aggregation model that, along with ad-hoc proxies for each pressure, allowed us to preliminarily assess the spatial patterns of potential threats. Intensive exploitation was identified as the highest pressure. In contrast, the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture was considered as the threat with least potential. The potential impact of climate change showed the highest uncertainty. Fourteen out of the 27 considered countries have more than 40% of their soils with moderate-high to high potential risk for all three components of soil biodiversity. Arable soils are the most exposed to pressures. Soils within the boreal biogeographic region showed the lowest risk potential. The majority of soils at risk are outside the boundaries of protected areas. First maps of risks to three components of soil biodiversity based on the current scientific knowledge were developed. Despite the intrinsic limits of knowledge-based assessments, a remarkable potential risk to soil biodiversity was observed. Guidelines to preliminarily identify and circumscribe soils potentially at risk are provided. This approach may be used in future research to assess threat at both local and global scale and identify areas of possible risk and, subsequently, design appropriate strategies for monitoring and protection of soil biota.