As Japan struggles to cope with damages to nuclear plants in the wake of a violent earthquake and subsequent tsunami, a research center at West Virginia University is providing valuable data on the ability of soil to mitigate nuclear contamination.

The Geospatial Research Unit, a collaborative effort of WVU’s Division of Plant and Soil Sciences and the National Soil Survey Center of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, is examining the soils of Pacific Coast states to determine their ability to sequester, or trap, airborne radiation, in the extremely unlikely event that it drifts from Japan to the western United States. Beyond that, they’re determining locations of soils that can transfer trapped radioactivity into vegetation, which can then be harvested for easier disposal.

These particular maps are being developed by the GRU’s Sharon Waltman, a soil scientist and geographer with the NRCS, and Aaron Burkholder, who recently earned his master’s degree in geology and geography from WVU and now works as a cartographic technician with the GRU.

Waltman has been developing maps of this sort in response to emergencies or potential emergencies since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She’s also worked on issues related to the massive oil spill following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling platform in 2010. GRU staff and student assistants can compile these response maps in a matter of days.

She estimates that there are roughly 22,000 different types of soils reflected in these kinds of mapping projects. While there’s a century’s worth of soil data available from throughout the United States, it’s only in the last decade that scholars like those at the GRU have begun to bring it into the digital realm and become able to synthesize the data meaningfully and quickly.