Soil Science in the News...

Soil Mapping in the News...

Monday, June 8, 2009

Making soil mapping more relevant: a calcium carbonate and climate change connection

I've been thinking for quite some time about how the United States Soil Survey (aka the National Cooperative Soil Survey or NCSS), of which I am a part, can become more relevant to the scientific community and 'mainstream' America alike.

I go out each and every day to map soils for this cooperative soil survey, and I absolutely love my job. But I often times wonder how the information I am collecting could be better used to address the critical environmental problems we are facing today; global warming, climate change, carbon sequestration, energy shortages, and the like. This is not to imply that the information we collect lacks value. Quite the contrary. All the pHs, ECs, CECs, soil textures, rock fragment volumes, parent materials, plants, and many other types of soil data will eventually go into a published county soil survey. The interim, in essence, "draft" soils data, is published via the world wide web on the Soil Data Mart. I wonder though if there is more that this survey could be doing to provide the average user better, less cumbersome environmental data. I also wonder if the time we spend out in the field could be better spent collecting more meaningful data that would have a direct impact on scientists' ability to model the critical air/water/soil interfaces on our planet.

With the advent of Google Earth in 2004, and the prolific use of mobile smart phone technology able to channel the internet in the most remote of places, I posit that much of the data we are collecting for the U.S. Soil Survey could be done more efficiently, distributed more frequently, and explained more succinctly to lay audiences with an urgency toward helping all of humanity understand that protecting and preserving good soils protects and preserves our entire way of life here on the planet.

A recent study carried out by soil scientists at Clemson University and Virginia Tech I think speaks to some of this urgency and sheds much needed light on the direction the U.S. Soil Survey needs to take to stay relevant in an ever changing world. The lead researcher, Dr. Elena Mikhailova, a soil scientist with a background in both soils and geology, and her team looked at the 12 soil orders and how they compared to one another in their ability to store carbon.

An excerpt from the article posted on the Clemson University website is as follows:

'The study evaluated average annual atmospheric wet deposition of ionic calcium from 1994 to 2003 in the continental United States by soil order using spatial analysis of ionic calcium wet deposition data obtained from the National Atmospheric Deposition Program and the State Soil Geographic Database from the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Using Geographic Information System (GIS) software, spatial data layers were developed and averaged to create a final iconic calcium wet deposition map layer. The total deposition per soil order was calculated by combining the final average ionic calcium wet deposition map layer with the generalized soil order data layer.

Results from the study revealed that the total wet deposition of ionic calcium was 8.6 × 108 kilograms, which would be equivalent to the maximum theoretical formation of 2.6 × 108 kilograms of carbon as soil inorganic calcium, barring losses due to competitive processes, such as plant uptake, erosion and deep leaching. The soil orders receiving the highest area-normalized total wet deposition of ionic calcium were Alfisols and Mollisols, non-arid soils that typically are associated with the “bread-basket” regions of the United States. [Mikhailova stated, “Formation of new carbonate minerals in soils — what scientists call pedogenic carbonates — represent a pathway by which atmospheric (carbon dioxide) can be sequestered.]

And here is the key sentence that I think really pertains to what we could be doing as soil scientists to map our planet...

"Maps of potential (soil inorganic carbon) formation and storage based on wet (ionic calcium) deposition can aid in understanding terrestrial ecosystem inorganic carbon dynamics and the way it can be manipulated to decrease (carbon dioxide) concentrations in the atmosphere.” Future studies "will measure, profile and identify the soil carbon characteristics and regional distribution to understand conditions and develop predictive models for future soil inorganic carbon research."

If ever there was an opportunity for the NRCS in general, and the NCSS in particular, to partner with fine agricultural research universities like Clemson and Virginia Tech, it is now. We could in effect map the soils of the U.S. while at the same time contribute to critical carbon modeling. The duality of our efforts could make a lasting impact on how all of humanity views soil, and its vital role in all of our lives.

I would love to hear your take on these issues I've raised. Email or feel free to leave a post here on this web log.
The Soil Scientist Administrator

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