CSIRO unearths clues about our soil

27 Nov, 2014 04:28 AM
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Red: The distance until soil reaches bedrock varies from 0 to 67.5 metres. Darker colours show greater depth.
The information is essential for farmers managing crops, or guiding miners in their exploration
Red: The distance until soil reaches bedrock varies from 0 to 67.5 metres. Darker colours show greater depth.

IF the pun weren't so corny, you'd call the work groundbreaking. Suffice to say, a gargantuan effort headed by the CSIRO to map the state of Australia's soil is unique.

The project divides the continent into two billion 'pixels', each representing 90 square metres, and reveals what lies beneath our feet to a depth of two metres.

Known as the Soil and Landscape Grid of Australia, the maps are being launched at a national soil science conference in Melbourne next week.

Blue: Nationally, the soil's capacity to retain water within the top five centemetres varies from 0 to 17 per cent.

Among its many offerings, the maps show nitrogen levels (an indicator of soil fertility), the capacity of soil to retain water, pH levels (evidence of soil acidification) and other indicators of soil quality. The work also reveals topographic details such as the slope of the landscape, solar radiation levels and how far you'd have to dig to hit bedrock.

While none of this is dinner party banter, the information is essential for farmers managing crops, or guiding miners in their exploration for minerals or even situating infrastructure projects, which can use data about soil types when deciding where to build a road.

The work is the culmination of three and a half years' work, $3.5 million and co-operation from 13 organisations, said the project's leader, Mike Grundy, who is a research director in the CSIRO's Agriculture Flagship.

Global first

The grid weaves together a bewildering array of data, from topographical information captured during a space shuttle mission in the 1990s, to satellite photography and airborne pictures captured by private companies.

It also integrates data from mineral explorations, climate records, remote sensor data, soil samples and more.

Even with all that material, though, the team still needed to use advanced statistical methods to fill in the blanks of Australia's landscape.

Much the work involved simply finding ways to weave all this disparate information together. The challenge to do so was set in 2006 when soil scientists from around the globe met in the US and agreed there was a need for all countries to work towards this.

"Australia is the first to have done it," Grundy said. "And the first to have done it for a whole continent. It's a global first, but it's part of a global effort."

The work in developing a common language for the various data types will now help other countries replicate the project, he said.

The raw data is freely available, although for the general public the data is available via Google Earth and downloading a navigational file from the project's website.

Grundy said the maps provide a benchmark, a where-are-we-now snapshot. Next steps, he said, were to start interrogating the results and see what light they shed on some of the country's pressing issues, such as biodiversity, climate change, soil salinity and erosion.

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READER COMMENTS

John Newton
27/11/2014 5:59:54 AM

This is disgraceful. How come the CSIRO has funding left over after the Abbott government cuts? This wasting of money on scientific research must be stopped.
Farmer John
27/11/2014 8:25:18 AM

It's even worse than that....not only wasting money on scientific research, but on research that is useful to farmers. Oh, hang on, useful to potential foreign buyers of Australian farms too so that's OK.
Ag Scientist
27/11/2014 8:46:08 AM

John, I doubt you are a descendant of Isaac then.
fridgimus
27/11/2014 11:16:33 AM

And what would they know anyway, they are only scientists.
Frank Blunt
27/11/2014 12:09:53 PM

So true Fridge , what would they know ? Some of these scientists don't seem to even know that CO2 is a natural part of our atmosphere and a direct plant nutrient . So yes Fridge , your statement would be a question on a lot of peoples minds. What would they know. Little it seems when blindsided by personal ideology or grant money !
Jeffito
28/11/2014 6:47:03 AM

Yair John Newton. Didn't read much of the story cos personuly I don't like readin to much but the pichars tell a 1000 words. One day those CSIRO blokes put read dye cross the country and then change it to blue cos they decide they don't like red. And what about all the poor blokes who is culor blind? Whatz inut for them. And that culor stuff can't be good for the vironment anyhow. And anyway I don't believe in pixels since That time I wasted a trip to the bottom of me garden with the 410.

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