Science - March 16, 2006

The soil treasures of ISRIC

ISRIC – World Soil Information celebrates its fortieth anniversary this month, and can look back on a long history of successful expeditions and soil inventories. It has collected soil profiles and samples from all corners of the globe, from the Amazon to Indonesia. ISRIC houses a wealth of knowledge and expertise on soil in Wageningen, and is now concentrating on making this available to as wide a public as possible.

ISRIC was established in 1966, and was originally called the International Soil Museum (ISM). It was the brainchild of Professor Ferdi van Baren of the then Landbouwhogeschool in Wageningen and the basis was a collection of soil samples that Professor Jules Mohr had gathered in the Dutch East Indies.

At the time the International Society of Soil Science (ISSS) wanted a world soil map to be drawn, and regarded this as an ideal task for the international soil museum. The aim was also to have a soil profile for each soil type to accompany the world map. At the general meeting of Unesco in 1964 the Dutch government offered to set up and finance the international soil museum, and it started two years later under the Ministry of Education and Science.

Exotic locations
It must be said that the soil museum’s premises for the first ten years were none too wonderful: a gymnastics hall and a shed at the University of Utrecht. Nevertheless a start had been made, and the employees were not too bothered by the accommodation as they travelled a lot to exotic locations: peat areas in Indonesia, the savannas and highlands of Africa, the Brazilian coast, the list is endless.

The soil museum moved to Wageningen in 1977 and a year later was renamed the International Soil Reference and Information Centre. Under Dr Wim Sombroek the institute extended its activities considerably and became known worldwide, also because Sombroek was secretary general of the influential ISSS at the time.

Dr Otto Spaargaren, a senior researcher who has made countless research trips since the seventies, takes up the story: ‘We have now collected over a thousand soil profiles and many more soil samples from some eighty countries, in particular from African countries, Indonesia and Brazil. Most are soils that are important for agriculture.’

Profiles
The soil profiles are made in the field, first digging a pit and then carefully extracting a strip of soil, often more than two metres in length, in which the different soil structures can be seen. Profiles can be used for agriculture-related research, for example to examine the effect of water stagnation, or a high level of acidity on the soil, both of which can be disastrous for crop production.

Agricultural or environmental scientists use the ISRIC soil maps and profiles, for example to determine which locations are suitable for more detailed research. Much work is done on erosion and soil fertility. Spaargaren: ‘We often hear from people from developing countries that we have maps of their country or research reports that they do not have in their own country.’

Each week students or PhD researchers can be found in the ISRIC map room, for instance preparing for their thesis research. But of course, not everyone is able to come to Wageningen. Therefore ISRIC, which now has sixteen employees, makes its soil data available online. Data for various regions in Africa and South America are now accessible for free on the ISRIC website.

Radioactive
The soil data is used for an ever-broadening range of research applications outside the field of agriculture. The institute has a valuable set of soil profiles from the former Soviet Union. Spaargaren: ‘It is a unique set from before the atomic age.’ A Belgian research group is using ISRIC soil samples to examine the presence of radioactive particles in peat, clay and sandy soils from the whole world. Radioactive particles released during the Chernobyl disaster are found in many soils, as far away as Africa.

Dr Alfred Hartemink, soil scientist and head of the ISRIC soil museum, is proud of the large collection and the interest it stimulates. ‘Students go less often to the field than they used, and studying our soil profiles provides a good alternative.’
ISRIC is training personnel from some twenty national soil museums and soil technicians are taught how to make soil profiles. Spaargaren: ‘Thanks to our training the agricultural universities in a number of countries, including Peru, Mali and Cuba, are now taking over the field work and are building up wonderful collections. In exchange for the training they send us a second example of each soil sample. At ISRIC we travel far less to collect soil data ourselves than we did in the seventies and eighties. Travel and living in developing countries has become much more expensive, and we are now focusing on analysing soil data and making this information more widely available.’ This happens increasingly in collaboration with the Centre for Geo-Information at Alterra, and since 2002 ISRIC has been formally associated with the sub-department of Environmental Sciences at Wageningen UR. The institute is currently headed by Dr David Dent, who is from England.

Bare patches
Important products in recent years include a world map of soil degradation, financed by FAO and UNEP as part of the Global Assessment on Human Induced Degradation project (Glasod), and a digital soil and terrain database (Soter), which contains inventories for different continents and countries. ISRIC’s soil scientists have not given up fieldwork entirely, however. Spaargaren is planning a trip to Tibet next year, as this is an area that is under-represented in the soil archive. Whenever possible he combines visits to congresses with soil data collection. Despite the thousands of soil profiles, there are still enough ‘bare patches’ in the ISRIC collection, including the Middle East, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Hartemink also notices growing international interest in soil from all sorts of disciplines, including environmentalists and town planners. Soil science is blossoming, if the international symposium that ISRIC organised last week is anything to go by. ‘The future is bright for ISRIC – World Soil Information. We lead the field nationally and internationally, and the next forty years promise to be at least as interesting as the past forty.’

Hugo Bouter

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