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.

35 million soil profile maps

The NRCS has entered roughly 35 million individual soil profile maps into its database over time. Waltman credits the combination of WVU’s outstanding computing resources with the vast information of the NRCS for the GRU’s ability to provide nimble response in times of potential emergency.

The GRU uses and develops geographic information systems and other remote sensing technologies to create an inventory of the soils of the United States and an accurate picture of their individual qualities and potential uses. The unit has a diverse clientele, though requests often focus on issues related to climate change.

“That’s one mission of the GRU, to use existing data about the nation’s soil resources for many different purposes, from land use planning to environmental modeling,” said Jim Thompson, WVU director of the unit and an associate professor of soil science in WVU’s Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. According to Thompson, the GRU is unique in its ability to “handle large data sets quickly and synthesize them.”

And soils are a complex natural resource, with tens of thousands of identified series, or types, of soils, each with unique components and properties.

“Any one property of a soil isn’t that difficult to understand, but it’s not just that one property that defines a soil’s reaction to different circumstances,” Thompson said.

With its combination of cutting-edge technology, skilled staff, and the assembled knowledge of the many soils that make up our landscape, the GRU is in a unique position to provide answers both in times of disaster and in periods of opportunity.