13. November 2023 | Magazine:

Soil research in times of urbanisation Magdalena Sut-Lohmann is the new Professor of Soil Science at the Institute of Geoecology

Our soils are suffering: Man-made urbanisation and globalisation are putting a strain on their functions. Since October this year, Professor Magdalena Sut-Lohmann has been researching and teaching this topic at the Institute of Geoecology at Technische Universität Braunschweig. In this interview, the head of the Department of Soil Science explains why this is a problem that affects us all.

Professor Magdalena Sut-Lohmann heads the Department of Soil Sciences at the Institute of Geoecology. Photo credit: Kristina Rottig/TU Braunschweig

Welcome to TU Braunschweig, Professor Sut-Lohmann! Why did you choose our university?

At TU Braunschweig I see a suitable environment to continue my research and to develop promising collaborations with several research groups at the Faculty of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Environmental Sciences. The aim is to explore the most important levers for future sustainable, climate-adapted land use systems. The research focus “Future City” at the TU Braunschweig provides the appropriate context for this.

The former Department of Soil Science and Soil Physics, which I have taken over, has excellent expertise and equipment in soil physics and soil hydrology, which I can complement very well with my expertise in soil chemistry. Many anthropogenic (i.e. human-influenced) soils suffer from compaction, sealing and intense and prolonged periods of drought. The joint research in the new Department of Soil Science, in the fields of soil chemistry and soil physics, has the potential for research on effective solutions to our current and future challenges.

What exactly do you research? How would you explain your work to people who are not familiar with the subject?

I mainly work with soils that have been anthropogenically influenced. This means that various human activities such as agriculture, construction, wars, accidents, traffic and many others have significantly altered the biological, chemical and physical properties of the soil. As a result, these soils can no longer provide their ecosystem services to the extent required. My job is to rehabilitate these soils and restore their necessary functions. I use methods based on plants and micro-organisms, such as the use of waste-based soil improvers. I am also working on developing remote sensor techniques to monitor and evaluate contamination hotspots and the effectiveness of a remediation approach that is rapid, sustainable and applied on a larger scale.

Professor Magdalena Sut-Lohmann at her appointment with TU President Angela Ittel and Professor Klaus Thiele, Dean of the Faculty of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Environmental Sciences. Photo credit: Kristina Rottig/TU Braunschweig

What are the main research areas and projects you will be working on at TU Braunschweig?

In my department, I will focus on experimental research on anthropogenic influences on soil development and ecosystem functions in urban habitats. My research aims to investigate soil development in the context of land use change and urbanisation, and to support the conservation and development of natural ecosystem services in urban environments.

The adaptation of anthropogenic soils to functioning ecosystem services requires an interdisciplinary approach. For this reason, my future collaborations and projects will benefit from my national and international collaborations, for example with universities in Poland, Spain, the Czech Republic and South Africa, which I would particularly like to expand through further contacts at TU Braunschweig. I see the integration of students from all levels of education into my research projects as an important part of promoting young talent.

What motivated you to do research in this area?

Soils are the natural resource that provides the basis for plant growth and thus our daily food supply. Soils also act as water filters, biodiversity hotspots and the foundation for buildings and entire cities. However, human-altered urban soils are undervalued because they no longer perform vital functions compared to unaltered soils. As a result, little attention is generally paid to anthropogenically modified soils, especially in urban and suburban areas, and the ecosystem services they provide.

As a result, the well-being of city residents is neglected, as is the great potential of these soils to address the current climate crisis or to secure food supplies. Environmental impacts in metropolitan areas reflect the pressures of rapid urbanisation and globalisation, including the production of toxic by-products, physical disturbances and changes in the abiotic and biotic environment. Therefore, the motivation and challenge of my research is to investigate soil development in the context of land use change and urbanisation, and to support the maintenance of natural ecosystem services in urban environments.

Describe your daily work in three key words?

Research, teaching and administration.

Thank you very much!