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Dirt mapping

Sarah Putt, Contributor. 26 June 2018, 8:32 am

Soil is the skin of the earth. That poetic sentence is uttered during a video on the Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research site acknowledging the digital milestone reached by the organisation's national S-map soil mapping programme. It now covers eight million hectares, or 30 per cent of the New Zealand land area.

Manaaki Whenua is a Crown Research Institute with annual revenue of $55 million and 350 staff in nine locations. According to its website, its core purpose is to "drive innovation in the management of terrestrial biodiversity and land resources" and it has been digitally mapping New Zealand's soil for 13 years.

"S-map online started in the mid-2000s when there was a push to digitise paper soil mapping records and help those using our soil to understand it better by accessing information on historic and new soil records for the wide variety of New Zealand soils," says Manaaki Whenua soil scientist Sam Carrick.

He describes the paper-based soil mapping that had existed before the move to online as "like stamp collecting, it had limited use."

As more than one-quarter of New Zealand's GDP is directly dependent on the nation's soil, it was important to move records online so they could be shared with a wide range of stakeholders. There are now around 7000 registered users of S-map online, with 35,000 soil fact sheets downloaded last year.

The maps and factsheets are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 New Zealand License. Which means that people can copy and share the information as long as it is credited and not for commercial use.

A separate and specific Landcare Research New Zealand Limited license is issued for those seeking commercial use which will have terms and conditions applicable to their use of the web site and the maps, factsheets and other information.

Meanwhile, the information that is being collected for S-map online is showing that the nation's soil - which we are so dependent both economically and environmentally - may be slipping in quality, with "significant concerns about erosion, compaction and high levels of phosphorous impacting our soil quality and the need for more research."

"Only about five percent of New Zealand soil is classed as highly versatile, with the potential to support a wide range of crops," says Carrick. "So, it's important we are researching to understand exactly where these soils are and how best to care for them for future generations."

And while the process of collecting, weighing, analysing and publishing the results of each sample is a detailed process, it is nowhere near as sophisticated as the soil itself, as the video narration points out: "Soil is the skin of the earth. It is a multi-layered complex system made up of minerals, water, air, organic matter and countless organisms that are the decaying remains of once-living things."


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