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: 10/01/2019 to 09/30/2024

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Statement of Issues and Justification

The NCERA-3 committee consists of pedologists from each North Central agricultural experiment station (AES), representatives from the USDA, Natural Resources and Conservtion Service (NRCS), National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), other universities, and an administrative advisor. NCERA-3 is an essential and strategically distinctive partner in the NCSS. The 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 (AES) in the nation; representatives from the USDA, NRCS; USDI, Bureau of Land Management; USDA, Forest Service, NIFA and state and local agriculture and/or natural resource agencies. The NCERA-3 committee is an essential component for coordinating 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. Spatio-temporal variability of soil-landscape-hydrological systems transgress political boundaries and require coordinated regional/national approaches to fully address the National Cooperative Soil Survey (NCSS) public mandate.

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). 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. It follows, that this amplification of SSI introduces a broad array of new end-users (e.g., climate modelers, urban planners).

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 needs to 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 provide to the NCSS.

NCERA-3 members provide important contributions to improvements and updates to Soil Taxonomy, the national soil classification system, and to international efforts to standardize and improve soil classification. 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 and a Soil Science Society of America committee working on fundamental changes to Soil Taxonomy.

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. Identify and prioritize common needs for soil-landscape research, education, and outreach (REO) in the North Central Region to coordinate cooperative projects and inform users and the general public about the importance of the soil resources and its associated ecosystem services.
  2. Refine the pedological framework for assessing and interpreting soil health and soil resilience under conditions of environmental and anthropogenic change.
  3. Improve the scientific foundation for soil-landscape assessment and interpretation, notably at finer and broader scales of resolution than obtainable from current data.

Procedures and Activities

Objective 1 

a. Maintain communication (via list-serve, local-national meetings, teleconferences, REO products, workshops) amongst NCERA-3 committee members, other pedologists, stakeholders, and USDA-NRCS regional and state office staff.

b. Coordinate activities and set priorities among the universities within the National Cooperative Soil Survey (NCSS), with increasing emphasis on data quality and interpretations.

c.Designate NCERA-3 representation on NCSS committees and relay/evaluate national recommendations and initiatives to pertinent groups throughout the region. 

NCERA-3 is the only regional committee with a specific focus on pedology and its application to the NCSS and some of its activities and impacts extend beyond the region (e.g., Soil Explorer Project).

 Objective 2 

a. Develop standards for measuring and interpreting dynamic soil properties.

b. Investigate effects of environmental change and soil management on soil morphology, and enhance sensitivity of soil classification and mapping systems to soil change.

c. Contribute to programs to develop spatial and attribute databases for dynamic soil properties, soil resilience, and soil health.

d. Engage with stakeholders in the soil health arena to enhance assessment and interpretation of soil health and soil quality.


Active research projects on dynamic changes in mine soils (IL) and providing a pedological framework for soil health methodologies (IL, OH, MN) as well as active participation of NCERA-3 in related workshops

Objective 3

a. Research and develop applications for broad scale soil-landscape data delivery via Soil Explorer or similar platforms.

b. Apply new technologies in both proximal and remote sensing to enhance fine-scale soil information collection and delivery.  

c. Develop basic and applied research and outreach programming on the use and limitations of geospatial soil data products such as SSURGO, POLARIS, and SoilGrids.

d. Focus and pool regional resources for applications including precision agriculture, wetland delineations, and land-surface modelling. 
The Soil Explorer project involves all NCERA-3 participants, who are also engaged in a variety of projects using proximal and fine-scale remote sensing techniques.


Expected Outcomes and Impacts

  • Outcome/Impact 1 Provide training for certification and continuing educational programs for stakeholders. (e.g., on-site waste disposal, wetland delineation, ecological site description). Metric: Participant numbers, certificate completion, CEUs generated.
  • Outcome/Impact 2 NCSS programs and activities at the regional and national levels will continue to strengthen as a result of the leadership provided by the NCERA-3. Metric: Committee and leadership assignments, products generated.
  • Outcome/Impact 3 Publications based on significant research related to soil-landscape function within the 36 MLRAs in the NCR. Metric: Citation indices and media coverage.
  • Outcome/Impact 4 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 settings. Metric: Program and participant numbers along with demographic and geographic data.
  • Outcome/Impact 5 The understanding of pedology will be increased through articles in NCSS newsletters, peer-reviewed soil science and related journals, workshops and seminars and other media outlets. Metric: Citation indices and media tracking (Note, this encompasses activities beyond that for outcome/impact #3.
  • Outcome/Impact 6 NCERA-3 members will contribute additional thematic maps to the Soil Explorer platform. Metric: Number and type of thematic maps developed.
  • Outcome/Impact 7 More explicit utilisation of the pedological framework in assessments of soil health and soil resiliency. Metric: Documentation of use of pedological framework in these assessments.
  • Outcome/Impact 8 A working list of research, outreach and education priorities will be maintained and updated annually by the NCERA-3 committee members.

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Educational Plan

  1. Produce educational soil interpretation materials for various end uses, including agronomic and silvicultural, on-site waste treatment and dispersal, wetland identification, and 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 accessible and engaging thematic maps on the Soil Explorer platform, which can be utilized for teaching and research purposes at multiple educational levels.

  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 multistate 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. Efforts are underway to recruit members from other Land Grant Universities within the NCR.

Literature Cited

Isee Network (2015 – 2018). Soil Explorer website. Online at Accessed Oct. 4, 2018.


Land Grant Participating States/Institutions


Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

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