“In this recent blog post, Grant Campbell reviews part of his PhD work which has just been accepted to Land Use Policy”.
About a year ago now I wrote a blog post discussing soil maps, data and information. In that blog post, I discussed the issue that global soils information is in an inadequate state for addressing major challenges such as water resource management, climate change mitigation and food security. I also raised the issue that as part of my PhD I wanted to understand what soils information users require, with a focus on known soils information products, tools and assessments. Since this last post, I have submitted a paper on this work to the Land Use Policy journal which has just been accepted! This blog post provides an overview of the highlights from this piece of research.
I’d like to begin with addressing the issue of limited soils information available there is out there, particularly when moving outwards from the soil science community. However, there is an awareness of the diverse range of stakeholders who require soils data and information for their work or projects. Soils information is used across a wide variety of sectors and disciplines from farming and agriculture to forestry and flooding, and it is used within a variety of applications such as the Agricultural Land Classification (ALC). The aim for this part of my PhD is to understand what soils data and information stakeholders need from a non-science perspective across Europe.
A questionnaire was deemed most appropriate, compiled using Qualtrics, to investigate the range of soils data and information currently being used across Europe, and investigating the tools and assessments currently used by stakeholders which includes soils data and information and what improvements are required for future use (e.g. Digital Soil Mapping and Assessment opportunities). The stakeholders identified for this questionnaire were thought to be representative of the major soil functions and ideally non-soil science contacts were encouraged to answer so that new information could be gathered.
From the questionnaire, the top three activities who answered were from agriculture, research organisations (universities, institutes etc.) and conservation. ‘Other’ stakeholders ranged from people working in landscape photography to those in the oil and gas sector (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Range and type of organisations and the percentage of responses to the questionnaire. This was to get an understanding as to the variety of organisations people worked for. N.B. Stakeholders could tick more than one option for this question
In terms of the types of soil information tools that stakeholders are using in their work, the users were encouraged to answer as many options as possible. These assessments are grouped by related soil functions (Figure 2). Most responses came from people who were connected with ‘agricultural production‘ and ‘conservation of habitats and biodiversity‘. In relation to ‘Biomass Production’, it was found that the two main tools assessments used were ‘agricultural land evaluation’ and ‘fertiliser/pesticide usage assessments’. In terms of tools and models grouped under ‘Infrastructure’, it is the ‘extraction of raw materials’ such as clay, sand and silt, followed by assessment of the impacts of soils on assets such as ‘pipes and electric cables’ that are most prevalent. ‘Nitrate Vulnerable Zones’ (NVZs) were found to be mostly used by stakeholders closely associated with ‘Environmental Regulation’ with ‘soil erosion and diffuse pollution to water’ following closely behind. ‘Habitat suitability maps’ and ‘land restoration assessments’ were the most commonly used assessments by stakeholders related to ‘Habitats and Biodiversity’. The number of stakeholders requesting information on fundamental soil properties from the questionnaire was higher than anticipated. Soil chemistry and properties such as ‘soil acidity and alkalinity’ and ‘soil carbon’ had the highest demand and application. A range of other assessments which were not detailed in this survey are also used by stakeholders. These included the use of soil climate zones to identify nutrient demands of crops and grasslands and flux modelling.
Figure 2: Tools and assessments used and percentages used by respondents. These are broken up into their closest related soil function.
Improvements to soils data and information was a key issue addressed in the questionnaire. For simplification, improvements were grouped across four main themes: ‘Uncertainty’, ‘Scale and Coverage’, ‘Metadata’ and ‘Fundamental Data’ (Figure 3). Most stakeholders expressed a need for soils information at a much finer resolution or scale to what they currently use. With regards to ‘Uncertainty’, respondents acknowledged that they wanted improved accuracy and credibility of data sources. With regards to ‘Scale and Coverage’, as well as wanting information at finer scale resolution, respondents wanted to see improvements in terms of geo-referenced soil information (i.e. data in a GIS format which they can easily georeference). With respect to ‘Metadata’ issues, respondents were requesting improvements in the availability of associated documentation. Finally, under the category of ‘Fundamental Data’ respondents want to see improvements in trends over time and future scenarios as well as contemporary data. Other notable improvement requirements ranged from improving map and data interpretations, and the ability to use multiple datasets or assessments.
Figure 3: Improvement recommendations by the stakeholders
At the end of the questionnaire, respondents were able to add any extra useful information. The main themes that came out from these additional responses were opportunities to increase knowledge transfer between research and policy makers alongside the importance of education and training, which are vital in terms of increasing soil understanding. There is a particular issue that soils are not well represented in school and university level education.
This study showed that most stakeholders require more contemporary soil information at a finer scale resolution than is currently being offered with improvements in trends over time and sufficient associated materials to ease accessibility and use. At present, there are limitations to providing accurate and updated soils data and information for different stakeholders. Legacy data needs to better utilised to look for changing trends by contemporary soil information usable for current and upcoming stakeholders needs. In terms of my own PhD, there is an opportunity for Digital Soil Mapping (DSM) and Digital Soil Assessment (DSA) to be used to fill part of the soil information void and I hope my subsequent PhD work will illustrate this effectively. For further information on the paper outcomes, read the full text below at the end of the blog post. Watch this space for some (hopefully!) cool new maps and information soon!
Author: Grant Campbell
Full paper text can be downloaded here: