Republic of Poland

The first thing in science is hypothesis.

March 29th 2017

You received the scholarship for young researchers but it is probably not only thanks to the grant project you are now completing?

I have received the scholarship for my overall achievements which included the grant you have mentioned. Another important element is probably my international activities such as my postdoc and publications with foreign research teams. The grant project which I’m leading has been carried out since 2015. The project integrates not only the knowledge from the field of soil sciences but also geomorphological, geological and geochemical aspects and it concerns verification of soil homogeneity in the loess accumulation area in Lower Silesia. I’m researching how loess sedimentation modifies soil development.

What does it mean?

My assumption is that significant part of crystalline and sedimentary rock waste no longer by itself performs the function of a parent material for forming soils. In many places the parent materials have been replaced or enriched by aeolian dusts which became a new soil substrate. What is of key significance here is verification of a period in which the aeolian dust was mixed in and the scale of inheritance of mineralogic and geochemical features in the loess – residual material relation, as well as which of them is dominant in transmitting these features.

fot. Tomasz Lewandowski

The loesses which you research were formed in the Ice Age.

Yes, loess alluviation came about mainly during the Pleistocene and later they were transformed in the “present”, that is in the Holocene through, i.a., erosion processes stimulated by, for example, human activity.

Is your grant international?

In a sense yes, because it involves Swiss researchers of isotopic analyses from the University of Zurich as well as Hannover Leibniz Institute for Applied Geophysics dealing with OSL dating.

Why have you decided to research soil?

I’m a naturalist and soils is a subject close to my heart thanks to mountains – I’m a mountaineer.

And when you started climbing, you wanted to know what you walk on?

As a child probably yes and my interest in soils comes from many different activities. Starting from students’ research association I was more and more into science and finally I got so hooked that I decided to do it permanently.

The supervisor of your MA paper was…?

Professor Kabała but I didn’t write about loesses then, this scientific area came later. From my scientific association activities until the finalization of my doctorate I dealt mainly with mountain soils, their evolution and systematic position.

It would seem that geology and Earth science are those fields which have been researched for a long time. And you are talking about new discoveries?

In reference to the surface layer of the Earth, we often use the term “critical zone” which defines the zone where different components interact with one another: human activity, animal life, climate, water, lithosphere, etc. Dynamics and mutual infiltration of these components still make it difficult for us to understand many processes and interactions happening between them also in reference to soil.

There’s no denying that in scientific work we hypothesize. In my view, in science hypothesis is first and then it is verified as research progresses. It is best illustrated by the example of implementations. We would like every project that ends up being implemented to be successful. But first we test if it makes sense and sometimes it turns out that it doesn’t. Of course it doesn’t always close the road. Sometimes it opens our eyes to new possibilities.

In soil sciences and related fields, we are very often uncertain about the age or length of a specific soil process. We assume that something occurred in Pleistocene but we don’t have dates so we don’t have results. And looking for these numbers is important because it is them which give us certainty. And to this end I often apply methods which are mainly connected with this “time” verification. Because it always brings us closer to the truth.

Would you say that Poland is a loess country?

Well, in Lower Silesia there are areas where the loess material is up to 15 metres of thickness. On the Lublin Upland it’s even 40 metres. But the key thing is the area covered with dust deposits which, in our region, is about 35%.

Is that a lot?

Yes and no, because, for example, China has loess covers 400-500 meter thick and the area where dust deposits dominate is much bigger. It all depends on deposition dynamics, recharge sources etc.

Which means?

The key factor is the recharge area and intensity of sedimentation, transfer of source material direct into the zone in which it is deposited in one layer or, more often, many layers. Because of their properties and thickness loesses are treated as an archive of climatic and environmental changes both locally and globally. However, in my project I don’t deal with such deep paleo sequences. I concentrate on the surface layer down to 2 metres but I work with dust materials very unevenly distributed – sometimes 2-5 metres deep and sometimes just very shallow 40-ceintimetre layers. And it’s extremely interesting how these loess materials intermingle with older deposits and how they became mixed together. Sometimes it’s a continuous layer, sharply distinct from the base and sometimes it transfers gradually from layer to layer.

Why is researching all those conditions important?

Because, very often, the contact of two materials drastically changes soil fertility, particularly when poor rock bases, for example granite, mix with loesses. It is significant for the assessment of forest habitats fertility or farmland quality.

Do you do fieldwork and collect samples?

Of course. It’s my favourite part of research projects. But I also work in the lab and carry out isotope, physicochemical, mineralogic and micromorphological analyses. Of course the majority of this work is done on the computer. And in lab work I’m backed by my co-workers – fellows, doctoral students and MA students. We enjoy excellent cooperation and this, of course, brings excellent results.

What is human impact on soil formation? Is Anthropocene destructive when it comes to Earth development?

The term “Anthropocene” has not been officially adopted yet, but in the stratigraphic commission there are intense discussions and many articles are being published on the subject because records of ice cores or lake/peat sediments clearly show the moment when we started to have heavy influence on the Earth which has, unfortunately, been mostly destructive.

Industrial revolution and 18th century?

Earlier. Those traces date back to the 16th and 17th century. Gradual changes caused by intense forest clearings may be found on old maps of land utilization. The clearings intensified erosion. Today the scale of human interference can be observed in soils using erosion indicators based on isotopes (such as 10Be, 137Cs or 239+240Pu).

Do you sometimes have a sense that the Earth is alive? Not humans or animals but this inanimate world?

All the time. The animate world – humans, plants, animals of course intensify certain processes, especially today yet the Earth functions a little independently. Mass processes, volcanic eruptions, continental drift – we often don’t have any influence on that. After all, in glacial periods it was this inanimate part that formed the world which the first people stepped on.

Your plans for the nearest future?

Maybe not the nearest but not very distant – a trip to the Polish research station on Spitsbergen. Of course for research purposes.