Alex McBratney talks with
ScienceWatch.com and answers a few questions about
this month's Emerging Research Front Paper in the field of
Article: On digital soil mapping
Authors: McBratney, AB;Santos, MLM;Minasny, B
Journal: GEODERMA, 117 (1-2): 3-52 NOV 2003
Addresses: Univ Sydney, Fac Agr Food & Nat Resources,
Australian Ctr Precis Agr, McMillan Bldg A05, Sydney, NSW 2006,
Univ Sydney, Fac Agr Food & Nat Resources, Australian Ctr
Precis Agr, Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia.
EMBRAPA, Ctr Nacl Pesquisa Solos, BR-22460 Rio De Janeiro,
Why do you think your paper is highly
I think it both defined a new approach and brought recognition to a new
area of research and application. It is also timely because, at the turn of
the century, scientists recognized the difficulty of conventional soil
mapping. With limited budgets, soil and environmental scientists are
looking for new ways of producing soil and related maps more efficiently.
Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or
synthesis of knowledge?
At first this paper was a review, then, after some thought, it became a
synthesis, and then, after some further thought, it was clear that there
was a more generic approach that could be developed. This is a good example
of going from review to new ideas.
"The paper probably led to a scientific movement which
then led to a global project. "
This paper introduced the quantitative scorpan concept, where soil can be
predicted from S: soil, C: climate, O: organism, R: relief, P: parent
materials, A: age, and N: geographic space. It also proposed the spatial
soil prediction function which allows us to spatially predict soil
properties across any region of interest.
Would you summarize the significance of your paper
in layman's terms?
It suggests a new way of doing soil mapping that uses the latest technology
and our best ideas about how soil varies across a landscape. The new way is
potentially much more efficient and more quantitative than the old one.
How did you become involved in this research and
were any particular problems encountered along the way?
I've been involved in various aspects of quantitative soil mapping my
entire research career. It was only with the time for reflection that
sabbatical leave allows that I could thoroughly investigate what everyone
had been doing during the previous years, and see the threads and
commonalities to put it all together, and then suggest a new way of
It only goes to show that time set aside for reading and reflection is
quite important for the development of science and, too often, this
opportunity is denied us by the increasing hurly-burly involved in the
administration of science.
Where do you see your research leading in the
This research has led to a movement of people across the world who are
investigating digital soil mapping as a way of producing soil information
for today's problems. Several conferences have been held and books have
been produced and there is a growing literature in the scientific
periodicals. Most importantly, there is now a global project to produce a
global map of soil properties at a resolution of 90m x 90m.
This idea was not even conceived at the turn of the millennium. However,
after the first and second conferences on digital soil mapping, which were
held in 2004 and 2006, subsequent to the publication of our
Geoderma paper, a group of people felt confident enough that we
could achieve such an aim. It's a great challenge but it's one that we must
engage. Some of the aspects of this were described recently in a paper by
Pedro A. Sanchez, et al. "Digital soil map of the world,"
Science 7(325): 680-1, August 2009.
Do you foresee any social or political
implications for your research?
The paper probably led to a scientific movement which then led to a global
project. The major aims of the global
project are to produce relevant soil information for
solving today's and tomorrow's great problems: food security, water
security, energy security, and sustainable response to climate change.
The information digitally produced by global soil mapping will allow
modelers, planners, and policymakers to put in place responsive and
responsible actions for the use of the global community.
Alex McBratney, Ph.D. D.Sc.
Pro-Dean and Professor of Soil Science
Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources
The University of Sydney
Australian Centre for Precision Agriculture
Division 1, International Union of Soil Sciences
Member of Editorial Board
Precision Agriculture Web