What would you do with 40,000 samples of Scottish Soil?

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What would you do with 40,000 samples of Scottish Soil? And why on Earth might you have such a thing? We were lucky enough to find out, spending an incredible day at the James Hutton Institute http://www.hutton.ac.uk/ in Aberdeen. The James Hutton Institute is an international research centre that works with some of the world’s most significant agendas around climate change, food and water security. Previously called the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute, since 1930 they have been collating the data and physical samples from it’s soil research into an archive. Shelves of labeled paper bags, plastic pots, jars, files, boxes. The day was spent exploring, examining, documenting and in conversation.

As strangers to the processes of soil science, the scale of the collection, was overwhelming, almost like discovering a particular hoarding habit. Hanging on to tiny amounts of something seemingly so simple, so common. As common as muck. Where does the collection stop we wondered? What is the collection worth? As we were generously given the trust to open draws, handle pots, flick through old field notes, the significance of the collection, the attention to detail became more and more apparent. Its worth is in the information and data that this collection can provide, to help us better understand how to use and the protect this valuable resource in our land. To inform policy around agriculture and to better understand the relationship between carbon and soil.

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A discussion about the relationship between soil and war resurfaced at several points. The collection was started during the second world war. The same time that aerial photographs appeared as a form of wartime surveillance and so it became possible to begin to make assessments on soil from the sky. Food security for the country was utmost and ultimately this rested on the productivity of our fields and our soils, the extent to which was an unknown at this point.

The ‘Soil Sampler,’ was the character who walked and climbed every 15metre square of Scotland, with a spade. Dug an at least one metre deep pit, noted it and took back bags of 15g samples that resulted in this collection. A manual and labour intensive process. We wondered to what extend does the personal, or subjective play some small role in such scientific processes? Intrigued by the fact that one sampler might see the colour of the soil with slightly different eyes.

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The soil samples have been processed, tested and analysed to record their composition. This is complemented by the soil survey, which notes the character of the area, what was growing, the weather, human activity etc.. These feed into the beautiful soil maps of Scotland, which can be accessed online here http://www.soils-scotland.gov.uk/data/soil-survey

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