Tuesday, 11 July 2006

Soil Interpretations - Sustaining Soil Survey's Past, Present and Future Relevance.

Karl W. Hipple, USDA-NRCS, National Soil Survey Center, 100 Centennial Mall North, Lincoln, NE 68508

Humankind has been aware of and used soil to various extents for approximately five millennia. Members of ancient societies knew some basic soil information because either directly or indirectly, soil produced their food. Soil, in some cases, provided raw materials for home building and was the foundation for much of their existence. They also used wood for weapons and hunting tools and they ate animals that relied on plants for their growth and sustenance. Throughout history, soils have permitted humankind, societies, and civilizations to succeed or fail and/or to struggle or flourish. The record of humankind's soil stewardship is available today in both historical and archeological records. Some of the record is stored within the soil itself. Globally, soils have been surveyed, mapped, and interpreted for many decades. In the United States, the National Cooperative Soil Survey (NCSS) program celebrated its centennial in 1999. Throughout its history, the NCSS has described, mapped and classified soils and provided maps and a few basic interpretations for distribution to its customer base. That paradigm was widely accepted and supported as the NCSS legacy for many decades. However, the dynamic new NCSS has recently redefined its soil survey paradigm to maintain and expand its relevancy into the future. Development and delivery of soil data and services in creative user-defined forms now defines the new NCSS soil survey paradigm and supports its legislated mandates. It is soil survey's lifeline into the future. Soil surveys, evolved and derived from the earliest understanding of soils, have played a major societal role throughout global history. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), since its early days as the Soil Erosion Service and later as the Soil Conservation Service, has provided the United States government a product and mechanism to guide national land use and management policies. The legislated mandates of the soil survey program have: a) provided the foundation to guide the nation's response to excessive erosion of the “dust bowl” days, b) altered land management and guided land use in response to crop surpluses and other factors, and c) provided incentives for land managers applying sound conservation practices. The contemporary U.S. soil survey is receiving renewed emphasis to respond to national emergencies and to develop landscape-specific, regional, and global models to predict multilevel impacts. Nontraditional soil survey customers are demanding new products. These demands are expanding the breadth of the traditional soil survey product line. Customers want robust mechanisms for the nontraditional delivery of products that demands stronger reliance on new, accurate, and more complete soil survey data. The older NCSS crisp interpretation classes have been replaced with fuzzy set interpretations allowing soil components to be members of classes along a continuum. Geographical Information Systems (GIS) now present soil interpretations spatially as maps instead of in traditional tabular displays. Raster-based interpretations are under study and development by a NRCS task force. Another group will follow to study interpretations based on soil map units rather than map unit components. Positive dynamic change is occurring within the NCSS. This change will ensure continued NCSS relevance and will lead it into future.

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