Midwestern soils at risk of extinction

BERKELEY, California, September 22, 2003 (ENS): There is new reason to reconsider the phrases "common as dirt," according to researchers from the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley).

A new paper published in the journal "Ecosystems" finds that certain soils are becoming increasingly rare, with some at risk of becoming extinct.

The study details that in some agricultural regions, such as in the Midwest, up to 80 percent of soils considered rare have been reduced to less than half of their original extent.

"Over the past two centuries, we have reconfigured part of a continent to the point where today's landscape is almost unrecognizable from its natural state," said Ronald Amundson, professor of ecosystem sciences at UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources and lead author of the paper. "The Great Plains used to be characterized by tall grasses and prairies. They have now been replaced by crops and housing tracts."

Soils, like their plant and animal counterparts, have their own taxonomy - in the United States, there are 11 soil orders that are ultimately divided into 13,129 series.

Soils that comprise less than 25,000 acres are considered rare. Soils that are classified as "rare unique" exist only in one state and make up less than 25,000 acres.

The researchers considered a rare or rare-unique soil endangered if more than half of its area was tilled, excavated or otherwise disturbed.

Using these definitions, the UC Berkeley researchers found 508 endangered soil series in the United States. Six states have more than half of their rare soil series in an endangered state, with Indiana leading the group at 82 percent, followed closely by Iowa at 81 percent. Most of the soil danger hotspots reside in the country's agricultural heartland.

The researchers also found that 31 soils are effectively extinct because they have been nearly completely converted to agricultural or land use.

The cause for concern, Amundson said, is that soil diversity is in essence tied to biological diversity.

"Soil that has been cultivated is like an animal that has been domesticated," said Amundson. "It retains some resemblance to its wild or native ancestor, but there are enormous and profound changes in its characteristics."

"We certainly need land to farm and develop - I am not advocating the discontinuation of agricultural expansion," said Amundson. "But I think it would be fair to set aside modest areas of these remaining natural landscapes for study and contemplation."

To conduct this study, Amundson and the other researchers combined data from digitized maps on soil types compiled by the U.S. National Resource Conservation Service with information from maps of agricultural and urban growth provided by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Never before has soil in the United States been analyzed in such a way," said Peng Gong, professor of ecosystem sciences at UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources and coauthor of the paper. "Our study is the country's first quantitative analysis of soil diversity."

"Some of these soils developed over thousands to millions of years," Gong said. "We can destroy that in a few hours. It is a preservation issue. We need to save it for future generations."


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