Soil Science & the Geologist


To the man on the street, Soil Science and Geology might sound like two sides of the same coin. The discplines do indeed have a lot in common, but the two disciplines have distinct personalities and different office cultures. The differences are attributable in part to self-selection by students during their university years and in part to different office cultures of employers.

I completed two degrees in Geology, part of a PhD, ran my own consulting firm for a while, and taught for a university Geoscience department for 5 years. That puts me squarely in the Geologist Camp. I also worked for 5 years as a Soil Scientist, which put me amongst soils people on a weekly basis. A few years ago, I participated in a 6-week soil geomorphology course and a similar 3-week course along with a couple dozen soil guys - mostly NRCS field staff and project managers from all over the US. All were great people, but even after many weeks, I would have felt more at home at a marine invertebrate conference.

Nature not nurture. If you mix equal numbers of Geologists and Soil Scientists at a keg party, they will naturally gravitate to different parts of the room. If you hang out with the Geologists, you're likely to hear stories of exotic overseas travel, misadventures in mountains, miserable hikes with overloaded backpacks, favorite beers, favorite boots. If you hang out with the Soils folks, you're likely to hear funny stories about family get-togethers, at least one story about a hog, advice on what makes for a good soil knife, what thixotropy is, and how frustrating the new changes in soil taxonomy are. Geologists go to work for oil companies, mines, governments, and research labs. Soil Scientists go to work primarily for the NRCS, sometimes large farms, and sometimes geotechnical engineering firms. The NRCS is one branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose mission is the promotion of agriculture.

Divergence begins early. Most soils people I have worked with had agricultural upbringings and held degrees in botany, forestry, horticulture, agronomy, or natural resources. Geologists, on the other hand, are typically hiker-climber types who recieve training in the physical sciences (hydrology, mining, petroleum, chemistry, physics, climate, computing). University programs in Geology require 1 course in soils and vise versa. Degree programs in Soil Science at the undergraduate level are all but gone in the US, while many Geoscience programs enjoy record-high enrollments, consistent funding, and prestige on campus. Both tracks deal with the ancient historical record, but Geology is by nature interdisciplinary and places exploration and discovery on a pedestal. Soils clings to traditional work on farmed ground. Both embrace modern computing, modeling, and GIS mapping technologies, though soils remains essentially human-scale work. Top-tier geologists tend to operate in the worlds of physics, chemistry, and advanced coding.

Asymmetry. In my experience, the best Soil Scientists have strong Geoscience backgrounds. I cannot, however, say the converse is true. I am not convinced Soils is all that interested in stepping beyond its familiar back 40. Young geologists, with most of their coursework completed, can absorb a heck of a lot of soils knowledge when soils are presented in the context of landscape evolution and stratigraphy. On the flip side, Soil students are poorly prepared to understand a soil's place in the stratigraphy of a landscape without courses in Geomorphology, Sedimentology/Stratigraphy, Field Geology, and Regional Geology at minimum. Perhaps such an understanding is not needed in order to accomplish the goals of NRCS mapping projects. I've heard NRCS staff on many occasions refer to the USGS as the "dark side". I doubt folks at USGS spend two seconds in ten years thinking about what NRCS is up to.

The jargon stiff arm: Soil taxonomy. I have seen the young Geologists get bogged down and begin to lose interest in soils when tasked with pedon description (tedious) and coming up to speed with Soil Taxonomy (stultifying). Soil Taxonomy is a substantial, overgrown, largely unnecessary barrier that walls off Soil Science from others. There is almost no overlap between terminology commonly used geology and soils. Why? Geology, as a discipline, is hundreds of years old. The Soil Conservation Service is the new kid, born out of the Dust Bowl '30s, yet it has created an elaborate, tangled system of naming soils. You can disect "allochthonous terrane" and likely figure out what it means. You have little chance with "andic eutrocryept".

We need more bridges built. Hans Jenny's CLORPT formula provides a connection between the two disciplines. STATEMAP/EDMAP-supported surficial geologic mapping brings folks together. The NRCS Soil Geomorphology Institute is also an important bridge, as is Geologist consultation on soil surveys. In the end, Geologists need to become more competent with respect to soils. With the emergence of Geoscience as the stronger sibling within American university system, Geology departments today find themselves in a unique, fortuitous position.

Initiate rifting. The Soil Science discipline needs to be broken in two. "Agronomy" (a science?) needs to separate from "Soil Science". The break should be as clear as that between the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and U.S. Geological Survey. Here's why: Soil Scientists working in mountainous regions are doing things very similar to Geologists in the region. The organizational charts of the relevant federal agencies should reflect reality. The Pacific Northwest, California, Great Basin, and Mountain West with its highly variable terrain, variable climate, and diverse land use priorities faces a future where information beneficial to land planning, engineering, natural hazards mapping, climate impact monitoring, water supply management, and energy development will be needed more than ever. Farming is not on the rise. The moldboard plow never had relevance in the West. It is my hope that non-farming focused soils programs claim "Soil Science" as their own relocate to their nearest Geoscience building sooner rather than later. A new Soil Science agency headquarters should be established in partnership with USGS and located 1000 miles west of Lincoln, Nebraska. Time to sell the farm and move to town, boys.

Last 50 Posts
All Posts by Month