Environmental Modeling and Global Change Lab

knowledge to support sustainable forms of land management

Healthy land and soil are the foundation of agriculture and a vital part of ecosystems and earth system functions. With the upcoming United Nation Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030), in this Lab we aim at generating global knowledge on land degradation to address current and future socio-economic and environmental challenges​

Led by Prof. Pasquale Borrelli

Research Topics

Food security

Soil carbon

Water quality

Land degradation



We use the latest projections of climate and land use change to assess potential global soil erosion rates by water to address policy questions; working toward the goals of the United Nations working groups under the Inter-Governmental Technical Panel on Soils of the Global Soil Partnership. This effort will enable policy makers to explore erosion extent, identify possible hotspots, and work with stakeholders to mitigate impacts. In addition, we provide insight into the potential mitigating effects attributable to conservation agriculture and the need for more effective policy instruments for soil protection. Scientifically, the modeling framework presented adopts a series of methodological advances and standardized data to communicate with adjacent disciplines and move toward robust, reproducible, and open data science.


Soil phosphorus (P) loss from agricultural systems will limit food and feed production in the future. Here, we combine spatially distributed global soil erosion estimates (only considering sheet and rill erosion by water) with spatially distributed global P content for cropland soils to assess global soil P loss. The world’s soils are currently being depleted in P in spite of high chemical fertilizer input. Africa (not being able to afford the high costs of chemical fertilizer) as well as South America (due to non-efficient organic P management) and Eastern Europe (for a combination of the two previous reasons) have the highest P depletion rates. In a future world, with an assumed absolute shortage of mineral P fertilizer, agricultural soils worldwide will be depleted by between 4–19 kg ha−1 yr−1, with average losses of P due to erosion by water contributing over 50% of total P losses.


Free-flowing rivers (FFRs) support diverse, complex and dynamic ecosystems globally, providing important societal and economic services. Infrastructure development threatens the ecosystem processes, biodiversity and services that these rivers support. Here we assess the connectivity status of 12 million kilometres of rivers globally and identify those that remain free-flowing in their entire length. Only 37 per cent of rivers longer than 1,000 kilometres remain free-flowing over their entire length and 23 per cent flow uninterrupted to the ocean. Very long FFRs are largely restricted to remote regions of the Arctic and of the Amazon and Congo basins. In densely populated areas only few very long rivers remain free-flowing, such as the Irrawaddy and Salween. Dams and reservoirs and their up- and downstream propagation of fragmentation and flow regulation are the leading contributors to the loss of river connectivity.


Soil erosion is a major threat to food security and ecosystem viability, as current rates are orders of magnitude higher than natural soil formation. Governments around the world are trying to address the issue of soil erosion. However, we do not know whether countries have much actual control over their soil erosion. Here, we use a high-resolution, global dataset with over 35 million observations and a spatial regression discontinuity design to identify how much of the global rate of soil erosion is actually affected by countries and which country characteristics, including their policies, are associated with this. Overall, moving just across the border from one country to the next, the rate of soil erosion changes on average by ~1.4 t ha−1 yr−1, which reveals a surprisingly large country effect. The best explanation we find is countries’ agricultural characteristics.


Launch of the EU Soil Observatory

Healthy soils are at the heart of the Green Deal for Europe. The launch of JRC's EU Soil Observatory took take place on 4 December 2020.

Plutonium and caesium fallout in European topsoils

Baseline Plutonium-239+240 topsoil (0–20 cm) inventories (Bq m−2) estimated with a generalised additive model with a resolution of 500 m.

The GloSEM Platform

The GloSEM platform predicts both state and change of soil erosion, identifying hot spots, predicting decadal variation based on land use change and soil conservation practices. The next challenge is to determine through a comprehensive mechanistic model what this means for soil carbon dynamics. We seek community collaboration to link new spatially explicit soil erosion predictions to soil organic carbon dynamics and earth system models.