Soils function as Earth's life support system, a thin layer full of life covering most of the terrestrial surfaces. Soils form the foundation of society. Norman Borlaug stated in his Nobel laureate lecture that “the first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind.” If we are to provide this component while sustaining environmental quality in the midst of a growing population and rapidly diminishing resources, it is imperative to study and obtain a deeper level of understanding of soil functions using state-of-the-art technologies as well as provide the next generation of environmentalists, soil scientists, and environmental engineers with the best education possible. The 16 papers in this special section on soil architecture and physicochemical functions in the Vadose Zone Journal contribute to these goals by improving and linking measurement, visualization, and modeling of soil structure (architecture) and physical, chemical, and biological processes in different porous media systems and at different scales. Several studies in this special section also outline and discuss emerging and exciting interdisciplinary challenges for the rapidly growing vadose zone research community, including the need for enhanced public awareness of the soil's essential life-support functions, putting value on soil ecosystem services (“capital of soil”), and design of optimal soil-based growth media for long-term missions in space.

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