David Lowe (New Zealand)

David Lowe (New Zealand)

Department of Earth Sciences,

Private Bag 3105


New Zealand


Associate Professor in Earth Sciences

Age:   51 years

1. When did you decide to study soil science?

My undergraduate degree major was in Earth sciences, soils being but one subject. I decided to embark on an MSc in pedology in the mid 1970s primarily because of the influence of several mentors. Subsequently, I completed a PhD in tephrochronology and so now see myself as a 'fringe man', to use the words of pioneer tephrochronologist and pedologist in New Zealand (NZ), Alan Pullar. By this term, Alan meant that a profile can 'tell more than one story', and my own research has subsequently been centred on tephras and layered sequences, i.e. stratigraphy, and environmental change (including archaeometry) together with pedology and palaeopedology. I am not a classically trained experimental soil scientist (that aspect being taken by colleagues in my Soils Group). Instead, I have taught papers essentially on soils in the landscape and land evaluation, as well as Quaternary science and tephrochronology. The emphasis in my soils papers has changed as my involvement with research into plantation forest soil mapping (soil-landscape modeling) has gradually lead to a new focus on spatial analysis and pedometrics as they were taken up and developed by some of my masterate and PhD students.

2. Who has been your most influential teacher?

Undoubtedly on top is foundation professor of Earth sciences at Waikato University, John McCraw, an experienced pedologist who had the vision to develop a department with an array of multi-disciplinary subjects rather than, say, Geology or Soil Science. Harry Gibbs, one-time chief pedologist for DSIR Soil Bureau who rounded out his career at Waikato, was a hard but fair taskmaster who taught me pedology and to 'write simply', to say what you mean, and to 'provide evidence to support each statement or identify it as speculation'. Michael Selby influenced me with his deep Oxford-derived knowledge of the scientific method and the critical importance of publishing research findings, much of which I absorbed on a manhauling expedition with him in Antarctica in 1978-79. Chris McLay who taught with me at Waikato in the 1990s is a fine colleague who could not be bettered, and Phil Tonkin has been an honest and influential mentor throughout my career. Many others have provided inspiration in various ways including Jock Churchman, Allan Hewitt, and Hiroshi Takesako. I enjoy and value greatly the friendship and contributions of my contemporaries in NZ and elsewhere.

3. What do you find most exciting about soil science?

Soils are a fundamental and irreplaceable resource with a wide range of essential functions and great beauty that together form a wonderful 'underground' landscape. I enjoy being privy to 'seeing' that landscape, knowing something about its origins and processes, and especially working with others who are also greatly interested in the soils around us. (This last social aspect was described by contemporary Peter Singleton in 2003 as the paramount 'beauty of soils'.) I am in total agreement, 'My friend, the soil', espoused by Hans Jenny. I am excited when long-standing problems, big and small, are finally cracked. Soils are complex, yet very clever people across many disciplines have learnt to understand and explain them and I admire them all greatly. I enjoy seeing landscapes in other parts of the world and their associated soils, and especially meeting those who care about them. I am also fulfilled by the succession in soil science and derive much pleasure, far more than I would have thought when I started out, in seeing our University's graduates develop into influential and knowledgeable soil scientists or geoscientists.

4. How would you stimulate teenagers and young graduates to study soil science? 

This is the most difficult question (actually two questions). Who cares about soils, anyway? In NZ, soils are valued less for their intrinsic properties but increasingly solely for where they occur, i.e. as real estate. I don't agree that we should teach soil science, or any geosciences, in high schools. If it's done badly, the position is worsened. Schools are less about education than places of custodial care and indoctrination, and teaching in high schools in NZ tends to be too prescriptive, stifling enthusiasm for a subject. At university it's hard for soil science, outwardly dull to the myopic, to compete with surfing or tsunamis. However, by slightly re-packaging soil science alongside or within environmental science there is a way ahead. Randy Dahlgren (USA) now teaches soil science effectively by answering the question he poses: 'Crisis in the environment?' We may have to become more clearly aligned with 'environmental science' than at present, and fast, before the engineers take over, even if our identity is a little compromised. As the unique life-sustaining attributes and multiple services provided by soils are recognised by those with influence, we need a champion in the form of, say, a Lord Robert Winston, to produce documentaries about soils, their role in civilization, their many beautiful and intricate properties and attributes, and about the pivotal role of soil science research in our society. Respect, in a word. I try to encourage young graduates to take up soil science by showing unabashed enthusiasm for the discipline, by providing opportunities for graduate research, and by 'inducting' them to the soil science community at conferences. In a word, mentoring.

5. How do you see the future of soil science?

Despite problems over several decades in soil science in NZ, the result largely of ignorant and uncaring governments, and a concomitant decline elsewhere, I am positive about the future of soil science. Firstly, soils remain a fundamental and intrinsic component of the environment on which civilization stands or falls, as history has shown. Failings in the environment are now beginning to show themselves in NZ in various ways. Previously, the impacts of humans here were either seen as 'progress' or were hidden by virtue of our tiny population. Now the chickens are coming home to roost: several 'pristine' lakes are in serious or early decline from eutrophication as a result of (unwitting) farm management including heavy fertilizer application. Even the complacent NZ public has been shocked to learn that groundwater entering these lakes and waterways is 40-60 years old, meaning that the problem is with us for decades even if drastic changes take place immediately in managing land adjacent to these waters. A second shock has been the recognition of contaminated soils (by heavy metals, DDT, etc) in many properties in urban environments that were formerly orchards or farms. What to do? Handwringing and rhetoric but more importantly soil science alone offers solutions. Currently, more than five senior-level soil science research-based jobs are being advertised in NZ (that's a lot for us). I think that the tide has turned for soil science, paradoxically because of increasing soil and environmental degradation. We need probably politically-driven but intelligent and well-articulated responses to these environmental crises. New tools and ways of looking at soils in the  landscape using spatial analysis  and pedometrics provide another positive direction for pedology, as shown by Alex McBratney and others

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Page created: 12.02.2015 | Page updated: 13.02.2015

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