Earth, where are you? Earth Day finds UC Berkeley professor
searching for what's left
Kathleen Scalise, Media Relations
- How much American soil remains in a pristine, natural state?
Earth Day approaches, a soil scientist at the University of
California, Berkeley, has just been commissioned by a leading
scientific foundation to find out.
hopes to identify soils that he considers relicts in danger
of extinction unless efforts are made to preserve tracts of
land. A relict is a plant or animal species living on in isolation
in a small local area as a survival from an earlier period or
as a remnant of an almost extinct group.
always thought the time you retire is when you worry about preserving
landscapes," said Professor Ronald Amundson, 45, "but I guess
I was wrong."
conceived of the idea of the national virgin soil study when
he was asked to write a chapter on the subject for a geology
book of essays called "The Earth Around Us: Maintaining a Livable
Planet" to be officially published on Earth Day, April 22, by
W. H. Freeman & Company. He discovered in researching his chapter
that quantified data about the nation's undisturbed soil were
not at all discussed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture,"
he said. "I was surprised and pleased that geologists were interested
in this and wanted more information."
endangered soil types are in what Amundson calls "subtle landscapes,"
annual grasslands, desert, tall grass prairie.
are not the kind of places that have typically inspired national
parks, but they are important to preserve regardless of whether
they have mountains or valleys or stunning rock formations,"
he said. "Besides the historical record, the soils harbor a
multitude of microorganisms that we have barely scratched the
surface of understanding. Some early antibiotics came from soil
would be bold to suggest that in only just the little time we've
studied these soils we've got all the answers and we don't need
these soils anymore," he said.
begin the first-ever national study, Amundson joined up with
UC Berkeley ecosystems professor Peng Gong, who specializes
in geographical information analysis. The Kearney Foundation
of Soil Science provided about $30,000 for the first year of
two professors are taking the USDA's national digitized map
of original soil surveys and overlaying it with current maps
of agricultural and urban growth.
see what's left when we subtract out human uses of the landscape,"
Amundson said. "We're going to get numbers on things we intuitively
knew. My impression is that there is a very small pool left
of some very important soils."
is a good choice for the task. He and his colleagues have been
studying some of the oldest soils anywhere. A series of terraces
in Wyoming told them, for instance, that summer monsoons once
blew off the Great Plains over high desert, and soil studies
have revealed that global atmospheric carbon dioxide buildup
began not with the burning of fossil fuels, but with the conversion
of prairies and woodlands in the United States and Europe to
most of his career, land preservation was not an area Amundson
worked much in. For almost 20 years, he has been quietly delving
into complex soil chemistry such as carbon cycles and light-isotope
"Soils," he said, "are not usually considered part of the earth
the study of soils has been the domain of agriculture, where
it was studied as the medium to grow crops. Amundson hopes to
change all that and to bring the study of soil to the wider
attention of geology and the earth sciences, where it deserves
a rightful place, he said. The University of California has
its own important role to play in soil preservation, Amundson
said. One of the most interesting natural landscapes left in
California is in and around the site of the new UC Merced campus,
he said, an area with some of the last sweeping vistas of vernal
pools left in the great valley, and an area with the most ancient
soils in California, 3 million-year-old relicts. Amundson said
at first he was quite disturbed about the location of the campus.
now I think maybe it is an opportunity to gather interest in
the area before it disappears under urban development," he said.
"Maybe it presents an opportunity to set aside some of the land
and keep it forever. It could be sort of an outdoor classroom,
a natural lab. I think it is very interesting that UC faculty,
particularly the biologists, are beginning to pick up on the
fact that this is a very precious area."
describe how soil can become extinct, Amundson told the story
of the infamous San Joaquin soil, which in 1997 was named the
official California "state soil." The most prevalent soil in
the state, it has been long loathed by farmers and homeowners
alike for its "hardpan," a layer of impenetrable mineralized
clay three feet below the surface.
spent a century first trying to blow it up with dynamite and
then rip it open with tractors," Amundson said. Now, undisturbed
San Joaquin soil is so rare, Amundson said he can hardly find
it. When it was named the state soil, after most of it already
was destroyed, even the San Francisco Examiner couldn't resist
a stab at the irony of it."
doesn't come along every day for dirt," the Examiner said. "...Let's
just hope that the Official State Dirt doesn't emulate the Official
State Animal, the grizzly bear, which hasn't been seen in California