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POLICYFORUM

ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE

Digital Soil Map of the World Increased demand and advanced techniques
could lead to more refined mapping and
Pedro A. Sanchez, 1* Sonya Ahamed, 1 Florence Carré, 2 Alfred E. Hartemink, 3 Jonathan Hempel, 4 management of soils.
Jeroen Huising, 5 Philippe Lagacherie, 6 Alex B. McBratney, 7 Neil J. McKenzie, 8 Maria de
Lourdes Mendonça-Santos, 9 Budiman Minasny, 7 Luca Montanarella, 2 Peter Okoth, 5
Cheryl A. Palm, 1 Jeffrey D. Sachs, 1 Keith D. Shepherd, 10 Tor-Gunnar Vågen, 10
Bernard Vanlauwe, 5 Markus G. Walsh, 1 Leigh A. Winowiecki, 1 Gan-Lin Zhang11

S
oils are increasingly recognized as major the degree of soil degradation (4). At present, dations, and serving the end users—all of
contributors to ecosystem services such 109 countries have conventional soil maps at them backed by a robust cyberinfrastructure.
as food production and climate regula- a scale of 1:1 million or finer, but they cover [See fig. S1, expanded from (7).] Specific
tion (1, 2), and demand for up-to-date and rel- only 31% of the Earth’s ice-free land surface, countries may add their own modifications.
evant soil information is soaring. But commu- leaving the remaining countries reliant on
nicating such information among diverse audi- the FAO-UNESCO map (5). [See supporting Digital Soil Mapping
ences remains challenging because of incon- online material (SOM) for more history.] Digital soil mapping began in the 1970s (8)

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sistent use of technical jargon, and outdated, To address these many shortcomings, and accelerated significantly in the 1980s
imprecise methods. Also, spatial resolutions soil scientists should produce a fine-resolu- because of advances in information and
of soil maps for most parts of the world are too tion, three-dimensional grid of the functional remote-sensing technologies, computing, sta-
low to help with practical land management. properties of soils relevant to users. We call tistics and modeling, spatial information and
While other earth sciences (e.g., climatol- for development of a freely accessible, Web- global positioning systems, measurement sys-
ogy, geology) have become more quantitative based digital soil map of the world that will tems (such as infrared spectroscopy), and in
and have taken advantage of the digi-
tal revolution, conventional soil map-
ping delineates space mostly according Maps can provide soil inputs (e.g., texture, organic
to qualitative criteria and renders maps
using a series of polygons, which lim- carbon, and soil-depth parameters) to models
its resolution. These maps do not ade-
quately express the complexity of soils predicting land-cover changes in response to global
across a landscape in an easily under-
standable way. climatic and human disturbances.
The Food and Agriculture Orga-
nization (FAO) of the United Nations
(UN) and the UN Educational, Scientific and make georeferenced soil information read- more recent times, online access to informa-
Cultural Organization (UNESCO) published ily available for land-users, scientists, and tion. Experimentation with these technologies
the first world soil map in 1981, using a sin- policy-makers. A foundation for such an is leading toward consensus (7, 9–12), and
gle soil classification terminology (3). The effort is being laid by the GlobalSoilMap.net operational systems are being implemented.
map has been utilized in many global stud- (GSM) project. This effort originated in 2006 A digital soil map is essentially a spatial
ies on climate change, food production, and (6) in response to policy-makers’ frustrations database of soil properties, based on a statis-
land degradation. But its low resolution (1:5 at being unable to get quantitative answers tical sample of landscapes. Field sampling is
million scale) is not suitable for land manage- to questions such as: How much carbon is used to determine spatial distribution of soil
ment decisions at field or catchment scales. sequestered or emitted by soils in a particular properties, which are mostly measured in the
One of the most-cited soil degradation stud- region? What is its impact on biomass pro- laboratory. These data are then used to predict
ies, the Global Assessment of Human Induced duction and human health? How do such esti- soil properties in areas not sampled. Digital
Soil Degradation, is based on expert judgment mates change over time? soil maps describe the uncertainties associ-
by a few individuals, has very low resolution The GSM consortium’s overall approach ated with such predictions and, when based
(1:50 million scale), and lacks quantitative consists of three main components: digital on time-series data, provide information on
information on soil properties that indicate soil mapping, soil management recommen- dynamic soil properties. They also differ
from conventional, polygon-based maps, in
1
Earth Institute at Columbia University, 61 Route 9W, Palisades, NY 10964, USA. 2Joint Research Centre, European that they are pixel-based and can be more eas-
Commission, 21020 Ispra, VA, Italy. 3ISRIC–World Soil Information, 6700 AJ, Wageningen, Netherlands. 4National ily displayed at higher resolutions currently
Soil Survey Center, U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, Lincoln, NE 68508, USA.
5
Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Institute of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, Post Office Box 30677,
used by other earth and social sciences.
Nairobi, Kenya. 6Laboratoire d’Étude des Interactions Sols-Agrosystèmes-Hydrosystèmes, L’Institut National pour There are three main steps in digital soil
la Recherche Agronomique, Institut de Recherche pour Développement, SupAgro, 34060 Montpellier 1, France. mapping. Step 1, data input, starts with the
7
Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, The University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia.8Commonwealth production of base maps, assembling and cal-
Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) Land and Water, Government Post Office Box 1666, Canberra, ACT,
2601, Australia. 9EMBRAPA–Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, The National Center of Soil Research, Rua Jardim ibrating spatially contiguous covariates from
Botânico, 1024, 22.460-000, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 10World Agroforestry Centre, Post Office Box 30677–00100, Nairobi available data [e.g., the 90- × 90-m resolution
00100, Kenya. 11State Key Laboratory of Soil and Sustainable Agriculture, Institute of Soil Science of the Chinese Academy digital terrain models from Shuttle Radar
of Sciences, Nanjing, China.
Topography Mission (SRTM v.3)]. Covari-
*Author for correspondence. E-mail: psanchez@ei.columbia.edu ates, reflecting state factors of soil forma-

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tion (13–15), include climate information supply networks, as well as crop models, such variety of end users (20). Digital soil informa-
(e.g., temperature, rainfall, evaporation); as those being assembled by HarvestChoice tion is likely to be welcomed by such groups.
land cover (e.g., Normalized Difference Veg- (19). These social covariates address additional For example, GSM will focus on providing
etation Index); a range of digital terrain vari- state factors of soil formation: organisms (other soil inputs (e.g., texture, organic carbon, and
ables; and geological variables relating to soil than vegetation), time, and human activities soil-depth parameters) to Soil-Vegetation-
parent materials (e.g., airborne gamma radio- (13, 14). Legacy data from field trials are used Atmosphere Transfer models that are used
metric spectroscopy). to develop models and transfer functions for to predict land-cover changes in response to
In developed countries, there may be suf- specific soil management recommendations. anticipated climatic and human disturbances
ficient point soil observations to allow putting (See SOM for further information.) across the globe.
a fraction aside to subsequently test and cross- A new generation of soil scientists must
validate the map for “ground truth.” In Africa, Serving the End Users be trained in this approach. The resultant new
ground-truthing has been built into the sys- Step 5 is to develop evidence-based soil man- maps and management recommendations
tem. Over the next 4 years, experimental sites agement recommendations. This relies on will help address some of the main challenges
will be established in 60 sentinel landscapes, analysis of soil functions of step 3 and the of our time: food security, climate change,
which have been randomized across an 18.1 legacy data, social covariates, and new experi- environmental degradation, water scarcity,
million km2 of sub-Saharan Africa. mental data obtained in step 4. Resulting maps and threatened biodiversity.
Collection of legacy soils data (preexist- and management recommendations form a References and Notes

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ing, georeferenced field or laboratory mea- baseline against which changes can be moni- 1. C. A. Palm, P. A. Sanchez, S. Ahamed, A. Awiti, Annu. Rev.
surements) is an important part of step 1. tored and evaluated over time. Principal user Environ. Resour. 32, 99 (2007).
2. Millennium Ecosystems Assessment, Ecosystems and
Major investment in new soil measurement groups are typically agricultural extension Human Well-Being (Island Press, Washington, DC, 2005).
will be required in countries having sparse workers and policy-makers whose main task 3. FAO-UNESCO, “Soil map of the world: Revised legend
soil legacy data. is to reverse soil degradation, to preserve and (with corrections and updates)” (World Soil Resources
Report 60, FAO, Rome, 1988).
Step 2 involves estimation of soil proper- maintain soil health, and to improve food secu-
4. L. R. Oldeman, R. T. A. Hakkeling, W. G. Sombroek, World
ties, expressed as probabilities of occurrence rity and household livelihoods. Other users Map of the Status of Human-Induced Soil Degradation:
(16). They are derived by using quantitative include research and modeling communities, Explanatory Note (ISRIC–UN Environment Programme,
relations between point soil measurements farmer associations, environmental extension Wageningen, 1991).
5. F. O. Nachtergeale, E. van Ranst, in Evolution of Tropical
and the spatially continuous covariates. This services, agribusinesses, and nongovernmen- Soil Science, Past and Present, G. Stoops, Ed. (Koninklijke
results in maps of soil properties, such as the tal and civil society organizations. The cyber- Academie voor Overzeese Wetenschnappen, Brussels,
ones selected by the GSM consortium as the infrastructure should encourage feedback, p. 107–126 (2003).
6. A. E. Hartemink, A. B. McBratney, M. L. Mendonça-
minimum data set—clay content, organic car- with appropriate quality standards developed Santos, Eds., Digital Soil Mapping with Limited Data
bon content, pH, estimated cation-exchange for the incorporation of such information. (Springer, New York, 2008).
capacity, electrical conductivity, and bulk Products will be tailored to specific needs 7. B. Minasny, A. B. McBratney, R. M. Lark, in (6),
density (to convert carbon and nutrients on of end users. For commercial farmers and pp. 15–30.
8. R. Webster, P. A. Burrough, J. Soil Sci. 23, 210 (1972).
a mass basis to a land-surface-area basis for national planners, the basic 90-m resolu- 9. P. Lagacherie, A. B. McBratney, M. Volz, Eds., Digital Soil
biogeochemical modeling). This process tion is appropriate (roughly equivalent to Mapping: An Introductory Perspective (Elsevier, Amster-
enables production of maps that use a range 1:90,000 scale). The basic product for small- dam, 2007).
10. Third Global Workshop on Digital Soil Mapping, Bridging
of soil classification systems. holder farmers might be at 30-m resolution. Research, Production and Environmental Applications,
In step 3, spatially inferred soil properties For some research, for example, studies of 30 September to 3 October 2008, Logan, Utah (CD).
are used to predict more difficult-to-measure nutrient cycling, resolution may need to be 11. B. Minasny, A. B. McBratney, F. Carré, in Encyclopedia of
Soil Science, R. Lal, Ed. (CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, 2008).
soil functions, such as available soil water finer, whereas for a study of global fertilizer
12. N. J. McKenzie, M. J. Grundy, R. Webster, A. J. Ringrose-
storage, carbon density, and phosphorus fix- policy a 1-km resolution may suffice. Voase, Guidelines for Surveying Soils and Land Resources
ation. This is achieved using pedotransfer Effective irrigation is another application (CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne, ed. 2, 2008), 557 pp.
functions (11), including those in the Fertil- requiring high-quality soil information. For 13. H. Jenny, Factors of Soil Formation (McGraw-Hill, New
York, 1941).
ity Capability Classification system (17, 18), example, in order to alleviate droughts in the 14. H. Jenny, Soil Sci. Soc. Am. Proc. 25, 385 (1961).
such as aluminum toxicity, or those included central North China Plain, more water is often 15. A. B. McBratney, M. L. Mendonça-Santos, B. Minasny,
in environmental models (15). These soil pumped into fields than the soil can hold. In Geoderma 117, 3 (2003).
16. F. Carré, A. B. McBratney, T. Mayr, L. Montanarella,
functions largely determine the capacity the long run, irrigation must be tuned to local Geoderma 142, 69 (2007).
of soils to deliver various provisioning and soil conditions (e.g., profile water storage and 17. P. A. Sanchez, W. Couto, S. W. Buol, Geoderma 27, 283
regulating ecosystem services. The overall permeability) to alleviate water scarcity. (1982).
uncertainty of the prediction is assessed by Developments in geographic information 18. P. A. Sanchez, C. A. Palm, S. W. Buol, Geoderma 114,
157 (2003).
combining uncertainties of input data, spatial systems, online services, and mobile technolo- 19. HarvestChoice, www.harvestchoice.org.
inference, and soil functions. gies are providing new ways to build, leverage, 20. GEO–Group on Earth Observations, www.earthobservations.
and disseminate spatial information. The inter- org (2008).
21. The authors are grateful to the Bill & Melinda Gates
Soil Management Recommendations governmental Group on Earth Observations Foundation, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa
After the three-step soil-mapping process, data (GEO) is building the cyberinfrastructure and the authors’ institutions for providing support. B.M.
from reliable, georeferenced field trials are needed to link numerous emerging systems and A.B.M. were funded by the Australian Research Coun-
cil for their contributions to methodology for the project.
compiled in step 4. This step is analogous to the for monitoring and predicting global environ-
data capture of step 1, except that the covariates mental change. GEO is orchestrating these Supporting Online Material
in this case are “social”: digital maps of land efforts through the Global Earth Observation www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/325/5941/680/DC1
use, agroecological zones, farming systems, System of Systems (GEOSS), a network of
crop yields, poverty, road density, and input content providers intended to support a wide 10.1126/science.1175084

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