NCERA3: Soil and Landscape Assessment, Function and Interpretation

(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)

Status: Active

NCERA3: Soil and Landscape Assessment, Function and Interpretation

Duration: 10/01/2014 to 09/30/2019

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Statement of Issues and Justification

Justification for Continuation of NCERA-3 (NC_TEMP003) Committee
on Soil and Landscape Assessment, Function and Interpretation:

The National Cooperative Soil Survey (NCSS) includes federal,
state, university and local partners with a public mandate for
identification, inventory, use and management of soil resources.
These partners include university pedologists from each
agricultural experiment station (AES) in the nation;
representatives from the USDA, Natural Resources Conservation
Service (NRCS); USDI, Bureau of Land Management; USDA, Forest
Service; Cooperative States Research, Education, and Extension
Service (CSREES) and state and local agriculture and/or natural
resource agencies. The NCERA-3 committee is an essential
component for coordinating National Cooperative Soil Survey
(NCSS) activities in the North Central Region (NCR). The NCERA-3
Committee members serve on a national advisory boards and
committees to the NRCS. The boards and committees are charged
with reviewing policies and making recommendations to improve
procedures in the soil survey program, identifying and
coordinating important soil and water research and education
efforts, developing soil/water interpretive guidelines, and
related activities.

Soil is the interface among solar radiation, nutrient dispersion,
and water supplies, upon which most life on Earth depends. The
NCERA-3 committee consists of pedologists from each North Central
AES, representatives from the USDA, NRCS, CSREES, other
universities, and an administrative advisor and this group is
uniquely qualified to meet future needs for National priorities.
Pedologists are soil scientists who study soils in their natural
settings, with emphasis on soil classification, interpretations,
and soil/water/geomorphic processes at scales from individual
soil aggregates to landscapes. Critical soil-related
environmental concerns, such as climate change and the
terrestrial carbon cycle, are global in scale and are very much
tied to the soil resource. Pedology is a relatively recent sub-
discipline in soil science, which, itself, is a relatively young
science. Much historical pedologic effort has focused on
identifying and classifying soil, which is a multivariate
continuum with spatial and temporal attributes linking both
biotic and abiotic components. Any science must be based on a
classification of the entity under study, and this effort has
only recently been accomplished in soil science. The emphasis of
pedologists is now shifting from classification and inventory to
identifying and understanding the temporally and spatially
variable processes and functions of soils and landscapes and
relating this understanding to end-users.

The university representatives are responsible for coordinating
research, teaching, and extension responsibilities with NCSS in
their representative states. This committee coordinates and makes
recommendations on designing, reviewing, and testing procedures
and practices for developing soil survey information (SSI), which
traditionally has included classifying, mapping and interpreting
soils, and conducting research on important soil/water/landscape
processes. Completion of most of the baseline soil mapping in the
NCR has allowed participating scientists to focus on refining and
adapting the assembled SSI to meet a spectrum of natural resource
planning and management needs at a variety of spatial scales. In
response to societal needs, the NRCS has appointed a national
committee to identify key soil/water/landscape interpretations
important to sustaining these finite resources. The NCERA-3
committee works directly with this group, the National Soil
Interpretations and Advisory Group (NSIAG) as NRCS adjusts its
historical mission and culture to meet new and important needs.
The SSI is the most detailed and comprehensive natural resource
data, including tabular and spatial, available in the world. It
is increasingly being used for a diverse array of applications
that go well beyond its traditional use as a tool for
agricultural planning and management. Most non-soil science SSI
users have minimal knowledge of the SSI limitations, scale, and
potentials. Educating collaborators and using modern technologies
such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and remote sensing
is extremely important. If broad societal concerns about
overlapping issues such as resource sustainability, global
climate change, soil quality, biodiversity, bioenergy and
environmental protection are to be met, pedologists must play a
key role. The SSI should therefore be formulated in a
sufficiently robust and reliable manner to meet existing and
emerging applications.

The NCSS is placing more emphasis on improving the scientific
basis and extrapolative utility of soil interpretations, and
developing improved systems for storage, retrieval, analysis, and
display/dissemination of SSI. These areas of emphasis draw
heavily on the scientific and technical expertise that university
cooperators can provide to the NCSS.

Examples of committee members' activities:

1. Use GIS and other tools to organize and share existing
SSI; to improve soil resource inventory; and to model
soil/water/landscape processes for a variety of needs. The SSI
tool may be used to inform allied disciplines about the soil
resource and the soil-water-plant interface.

2. Address technical problems and concerns about data
quality before data are reliably incorporated into automated
systems, such as Web Soil Survey and decision support tools.
Differences in scale, cartographic technology, landscape
concepts, land use intensity, and classification systems have
occurred over the 50 years the data have been collected. Use of
automated technologies provides a means for improving the detail
and quality of information contained in soil maps through
application of spatial, analytical, and display techniques.

3. Develop new research methods and procedures for
generating and using soils information at both smaller and larger
scales of resolution than current used in SSI data collection.
Methods would include geostatistics, surface modeling, LIDAR,
image processing, landscape process modeling and visualization.
Broadening the scope and scale of the research addressed would
provide guidance on stakeholder needs related to updates,
interpretations, and informational products, particularly
priorities of the research community. More research and outreach
emphasis will be placed on interdependent development of
pedologicial interpretations that require on-site investigation
at a scale of resolution finer than that obtainable in soil
surveys. These include appropriate siting of independent sewage
treatment systems, siting and construction of rain gardens, and
wetland delineation activities. At a scale of resolution coarser
than that obtainable in soil surveys would be focused on use of
additional resource data (e.g., LIDAR, remotely sensed data or
other GIS data layers) with soil survey data to enhance
interpretations and recommendations. Multiple opportunities and
needs for pedological research, education, and outreach around
these types of interpretations exist and could be at least
partially addressed on a regional basis, rather than being
duplicated state by state.

4. Modernize the SSI (with emphasis on data needed for
interpretations) using Major Land Resource Areas (MLRAs) as the
focal point. The MLRAs are geographic in nature and cross county
and state boundaries. NCERA-3 members interact with colleagues to
access and provide crop, land use and climatic data in addition
to soils information. The NCERA-3 members provide state-of-the-
art SSI in a GIS format to: (i) maintain the integrity and
accuracy of the original survey, (ii) eliminate duplication and
waste in developing single use soil data bases, and (iii)
facilitate the transfer of soil data layers between different
computer systems across a variety of user clientele. NCERA-3 has
advocated the need to characterize soils and to measure
contaminated sediment in areas of the region that have been
affected by flooding. Such information offers valuable guidance
to remediation approaches and levee management decision-making.
The USDA, NRCS soil survey leadership team has been encouraged to
make updated soil surveys of all land affected by floodwaters.

5. Collect data for benchmark and/or extensive soils to
support crop yield and biomass (including range, timber and
bioenergy crops) estimates. Test models that better predict yield
within the context of changing climate. Many states and counties
use crop yield and biomass estimates in land appraisal and
assessment work. These states and counties which use an income
capitalization approach to land value have become leaders in use
of digitized soil data for tax assessment. These crop yield and
biomass data will also be useful in determining suitability and
sustainability of soils for bioenergy production. NCERA-3 is
addressing the plowing of long-term no-tillage fields and the
wide-scale installation of tile drainage in the Northern Great
Plains. The impact of using controlled drainage to reduce soil
sodification, downstream flooding, and water quality risks and
compare with free-drainage systems will be determined.
Management and soil amendment guidelines that optimize production
on saline- and sodium-affected soils will be developed. Feedstock
production systems within undulating landscapes typical of the
North Central Region will be studied and result in a
comprehensive carbon, energy, nitrogen, and productivity

6. Address environmental issues, including those related to
sustainability, vadose zone and surface water quality and the
soil component of the terrestrial carbon cycle. Multidisciplinary
efforts to improve sampling and modeling designs that better
represent soil distributions and processes are needed.

7. NCERA-3 meets annually to exchange pertinent research
information. On alternate years it meets with all NCSS members in
the NCR to identify and coordinate research needs that support
soil survey. The meetings are an important forum through which
research and extension initiatives are developed and the needs of
society in general for soil and water information are identified
and discussed. The university members on the committee are
educating the next generation of soil scientists, and if
societys needs are to be met, future pedologists must have a
wider range of skills and perspectives than their predecessors.

Three members of the NCERA-3 committee serve on the Regional Soil
Taxonomy review committee which evaluates proposed modifications
to Soil Taxonomy including those developed by international
working committees. NCERA-3 members serve on the Soil
Classification Field Guide Workgroup that is working within the
National Cooperative Soil Survey to develop a simplified guide
for soil classification. The guide is based on the 2010 edition
of Keys to Soil Taxonomy and includes simplified keys for soil
classification to the great group level. The intended audience is
field soil scientists, university students, scientists in
disciplines other than soil genesis and classification, and soil
science practitioners. The guide will be extensively used for
teaching classes in Introductory Soil Science and Soil Genesis
and Classification at land grant and other research universities
throughout the US.

Representatives from NCERA-3 serve on NCSS work planning boards
and national committees. These various committee linkages provide
a network for evaluating soil survey technology in terms of its
suitability for use in solution of current and anticipated land
use problems. SSI is a major mechanism for technology transfer of
research findings developed at AES and other research facilities.
Policies of NCSS are evaluated by the NCERA-3 with respect to
their impact on land use.

In summary, NCERA-3 provides a forum for contributing to the
scientific foundation that guides collection of SSI and its
interpretation and extrapolation. It provides a mechanism for
evaluating and refining NCSS directives to suit local and state
needs. As numbers of soil scientists and supporting resources
have declined, the importance of a regional committee has
increased. As the need for truly collaborative multidisciplinary
work is being recognized and encouraged, the science that focuses
on the interface between the biotic and abiotic processes in the
landscape (pedology) is impaired. Therefore, pedologists must
develop new linkages with other disciplines (including
sociologists, ecologists, economists, engineers, geologists,
hydrologists and urban planners) that work in the soil landscape.


  1. Coordinate activities and set priorities among the universities for the NCSS, with increasing emphasis on interpretations and data base availability.
  2. Identify and prioritize common needs for soil and landscape research by Major Land Resource Areas to foster cooperative research projects and minimize duplication, with emphasis on important processes.
  3. Prioritize research in pedology at both smaller and larger scales of resolution than obtainable in soil surveys. Focus and pool regional resources in areas, such as wetland delineations.
  4. Develop the scientific foundation for databases needed for soil and landscape assessment and interpretation.
  5. Engage in research, education and outreach activities regarding key soil processes and functions.
  6. 6. Initiate and strengthen partnerships with ancillary disciplines and sciences to inform users and the general public about the importance of the soil resource and its synergisms with water and living organisms.

Procedures and Activities

Objective 1
a. Participate in annual cooperative soil survey meetings at state, regional and national levels.
b. Maintain the NCERA-3 list-serve.
c. Designate NCERA-3 representation on NCSS committees and relay/evaluate national recommendations and initiatives to pertinent groups throughout the region.
d. Cooperate directly with NCSS advisory groups in identifying new uses of the soil survey and the soil data base.

Objective 2
a. Maintain communication with MLRA regional offices.
b. Advise and participate in MLRA research project development.
c. Direct research on soil landscape functions.
Objective 3
a. Focus research and outreach on interpretations at a scale of resolution finer than that obtainable in soil surveys.
b. Combine the use of additional resources on geographic and landscape information with soil survey data to enhance interpretations and recommendations at a scale of resolution coarser than that obtainable in soil survey
c. Improve the understanding of key decision-makers in land grant institutions and the NRCS about the relevance of soil map scale of resolution, pedology and landscape analysis.
d. Multiple opportunities and needs for pedological research, education, and outreach around these interpretations.

Objective 4
a. Incorporate existing AES and other universities soil characterization data into the national database in cooperation with National Soil Survey Center. These data includes soil sampling site location, soil classification, soil description (using pedon pc software program) and laboratory and field measured soil properties of each pedon (using lab data software program), and laboratory methods used.
b. Identify and characterize benchmark soils and landscapes with NCSS partners.

Objective 5
a. Participate in state, regional and national soil and land judging competitions.
b. Develop K-12 educational activities for soil processes and functions.
c. Provide training for certification and continuing educational programs for stakeholders.
d. Train the next generation of soil scientists.
e. Direct graduate research on soil landscape functions.

Objective 6
a. Contribute articles to NCSS newsletters and Soil Survey Horizons.
b. Contribute articles to journals in ancillary disciplines such as engineering, range, geosciences, forestry and ecological sciences.
c. Provide outreach activities through MLRA workshops, field days, seminars, etc.

Expected Outcomes and Impacts

  • NCSS programs and activities at the regional and national levels will continue to strengthen as a result of the leadership provided by the NCERA3 .
  • Publications based on significant research related to soil landscape function within the 36 MLRAs in the NCR.
  • AES and university characterization data will be incorporated into the National Soil Survey database and made available to a broader audience.
  • Increased awareness of fundamental soil science processes and functions will result from workshops, training sessions, courses, and online training conducted for students, including K-12, .
  • Improved understanding about the relevance of soil map scale of resolution, pedology, and landscape analysis by key decision-makers in land grant institutions and the NRCS.
  • Outcome/Impact 6 The next generation of soil scientists will be trained to meet the future needs of the NCSS and society. Outcome/Impact 7 The understanding of pedology will be increased through articles in NCSS newsletters and Soil Survey Horizons. Outcome/Impact 8 Increased awareness of soil and landscape functions through ancillary disciplines publications, seminars and workshops.

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Educational Plan

Traditionally, much of the outreach education of this committee has been indirect, largely through publications from the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), formerly the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), and University Extension.
1. Produce educational soil interpretation materials for specific land uses, including agronomic and silviculture, on-site waste treatment and dispersal , wetland identification, soil erosion control and tillage management, and understanding the temporal and spatially variable attributes of soil systems. These guides will explain cause-and-effect dynamics as well as providing information for interpretations.
2. Produce web-based educational models that focus on soil-water dynamics, soil erosion, and the synergisms among soils, landforms and living organisms.
3. Develop educational materials for use in grades K-12 with the intention of making science more relevant and applicable, interesting and accessible to children and their teachers.
4. Continue to produce soil maps at a variety of scales and continue to provide information to ancillary agencies (NRCS and state groups such as Departments of Natural Resources and Departments of Conservation) for use in their educational outreach programs.


Organization/Governance The committee will adopt the multi-state standard governance with the election of a chair, a chair-elect, and a secretary. All officers elected will serve two-year terms to provide continuity.

Literature Cited


Land Grant Participating States/Institutions


Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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