Asmeret Asefaw Berhe on the Science of Soil
Could the solution for climate change lie under our feet?
Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our times. As glaciers melt and extreme drought become more frequent, scientists like Asmeret Asefaw Berhe know the importance of research and how it can be used to protect future generations. In fact, she believes that the answer to our problems is right underneath our feet. Asmeret is a professor at the University of California Merced in the Life and Environmental Sciences department. She is also a soil biogeochemist and a political ecologist. What does that mean? She studies the soil to determine the health of the earth and how it plays into public policy.
Asmeret’s research has received recognition from the United States Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, National Academy of Sciences, and the Geological Society of America.
What’s Soil Got to Do with Climate Change?
Her most recent contribution was on her 2019 TED Talk titled What’s Soil Got to Do with Climate Change? Her goal was to ensure that soil got the attention it deserves. “One of the most vital things humans should address are aspects of climate change, and nutrition and food security of the bulging human population on the soil and land.”
Asmeret’s research focuses on the environmental importance of sediments. Climate change is in part based on greenhouse gas emissions which include carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is stored in soil. If soil is healthy, then more carbon dioxide will stay in the soil and keep it out of our atmosphere. Increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere contribute to the greenhouse gas effect, which is a theory that states that planet earth is warming at an unprecedented rate due to human consumption. Asmeret believes that if people understand the role that soil plays in adapting to climate change, they will adopt healthy soil habits, conserve soil, reduce war, agricultural grazing, and other degrading soil practices.
Asmeret’s TED Talk explained climate change in a simplistic way that made it easy for others to understand. In fact, it was so relatable that it inspired a comic book. Like the comic book, professor Asmeret’s research programs are vibrant, creative, and help people to understand their role in adapting to climate change.
Asmeret was born in Asmara, Eritrea, a northeastern African nation. She lived there until adulthood, before coming to America. She holds a Bachelor of Science in soil and water conservation at the University of Asmara, Eritrea. She also has a master’s degree in political ecology with a focus on the land degradation effects from Michigan State University.
She received her doctoral degree in biogeochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. And her graduate work involved understanding how erosion affected the carbon exchange between the land and the air. Her findings concluded that erosion makes soil store more carbon, which decreases the carbon dioxide in the air. She did her postdoctoral research at the University of California, Berkeley, and later moved to the University of California, Davis, for more postdoctoral work.
Today, Asmeret’s research group aims to understand how environmental changes affect organic elements such as the nitrogen cycle and carbon in the soil. Her research fieldwork takes her all over the country, including to Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Nevada to study dirt, plants, and water. In California, she has made a name for herself as her research attempts to unearth the effect of drought and wildfires on soil and its ability to store carbon.
Asmeret also researches political ecology, which allows policy makers to understand how armed conflict affects land degradation. She has co-written several papers on the relationship between soil, human security (including water quality and food security), and global change.
Global Recognition, Impact and Contribution
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA)
Asmeret was featured in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) report in 2005. The report was ordained by former United Nations Secretary Kofi Annan to assess the human impact on the environment. The MEA report called for the expertise of over 1,600 experts worldwide. The report is a compilation of more than 500 pages of peer-reviewed, factual research on climate, human well-being, and the environment.
“I talked about my research on political ecology, climate change, and the intersection of soil,” she says. She also participated as a lead author on Drivers of Change in Ecosystem Condition and Services. Later that year, the report won the Zayed International Prize for the Environment.
Advocate for Women in Science
Asmeret is a proud feminist. She serves as a co-principal investigator of ADVANCEGeo, which works to ensure women are hired and excel in climate and geoscience fields. She wants women to know that they can do great things in male-dominated fields. Just look at her accomplishments, she received a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to address sexual harassment in the scientific field, including in environmental, space, and earth sectors.
Also, Asmeret is on the board of the Earth Science Women’s Network, and she is a member of the American Geophysical Union, Association for Women Geoscientists, and 500 Women Scientists. “My goal is to help women feel safe in science and let them know that this is an inclusive space for all.”
Other awards she has received include the University of California President’s Research Catalyst Award, National Science Foundation CAREER Award, NSF CAREER Award, Hellman Family Foundation Fellow Award, and an award from the Geological Society of America for the New Voices in Science, Engineering, and Medicine. For more on Asmeret and her research, click here.