Soil data, soil information and soil maps

Many have realised that global soil information is currently inadequate for addressing the global challenges of food security, water resource protection and climate change mitigation. However, only in recent years has significant funding been invested into soils information generation across the world. Africa, in particular, is in need of soils information to help tackle poverty and thus benefit its national economies (see picture below). In Europe the picture is variable, much existing soils information is >30 years old and the high expense and practicalities of field surveying limit the collection of new, high-resolution soils data. With 2015 being designated the International Year of Soils, this is the time to be going all-out in raising an awareness of the importance of soils information in maximising soils important functions.

Source: www.africasoils.net

Source: www.africasoils.net

The basis of my own PhD is investigating how applications of Digital Soil Mapping (DSM) can (or perhaps not) improve the spatial accuracy of national soils data (for Scotland, England and Wales) and quantify respective uncertainty. For those who don’t know what DSM is, in a nutshell, it is the production of digital maps using computer-assisted tools and models. DSM has been identified as a useful tool to help generate information on soil types, classes and properties, to provide uncertainty estimates and to improve the spatial resolution of national-scale soil maps. At present, digital soil maps are being developed to illustrate key soil properties such as pH and organic carbon content, with groups such as the GlobalSoilMap.net consortium creating a global dataset of soil properties. Whilst I am happy that this is being undertaken, I am curious about the people who might use these maps for their work and projects. A section of my PhD will undertake a questionnaire and systematic user need review of soil information, with a particular emphasis on already known about soil products such as agricultural capability and groundwater vulnerability.

Literature regarding user needs of soil information is limited, however, from what we have investigated thus far has revealed that there is a huge diversity of people who require soil data and soil maps for their work (see Omuto et al, 2013 for more information). Valentine et al, (1981) argues that ‘soil maps, data and information are used [more and more] by people who are not just soil scientists’.  Soil data can therefore be used across a wide variety of disciplines from forestry to flooding to farming and is needed for an array of applications such as habitat suitability and identifying flood risks. The people who will end up using these maps will predominantly be non-soil scientists, who might work in sectors from policy or finance to education and communications.

Land Capability Classification map for Scotland

Land Capability Classification map for Scotland (Source: The James Hutton Institute)

These functional maps are often used without a strong knowledge and understanding of their meaning, quality and usability. It is important that some form of communication is used to reduce the barrier between soil data providers and potential stakeholders so that these products are used to their maximum benefit. The Land Capability of Agriculture (LCA) (or Agriculture for Land Classification in England and Wales) classification system is an example of this kind of output (see previous post). LCA provides criteria which allows soil specialists to categorise areas of land based on assessing climate, soil, topography, and vegetation. From this, soil specialists can draw conclusions towards the capability of a specified area of land for agricultural purposes. LCA is widely used in planning and is useful in terms of helping review policies. It will be interesting to see what participants make of current thematic soil information, its strengths and weaknesses and whether or not it is maximised most effectively in their area of research, policy or other domain.

Agricultural Land Classification map of England and Wales

Agricultural Land Classification map of England and Wales (Source: Natural England)

In particular, it will be interesting to understand if users of these maps are aware that soil data is an important component of these thematic maps. This is where I hope that this piece of investigatory work will help when considering a systematic review of user needs. Information about the function of soils is important for policy makers, as it aims to increase the understanding of the interactions within and around the soil environment. However, it is harder to do and little information has been collected or is well out of date. Such an approach would allow soils to be further recognised by society, provide governing institutions with options and/or trade-offs for decision making purposes and to help simplify soil science in land use decision making processes; all key to helping us learn more about soil data used to help the soil function.

In summary, I hope this piece of investigatory work will provoke people to take a minute and ask themselves who, at the end of the day, is their target audience. As these are the most important people in terms of helping you with your research and hopefully helping them with your knowledge and expertise. It’s a two-way street folks.

Author: Grant Campbell (@Stato_Grant)

Feature image: Global Soil Regions (Source: http://www.cals.uidaho.edu/soilorders/)

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