The historical role of base maps in soil geography

Miller, B.A. and R.J. Schaetzl. 2014. The historical role of base maps in soil geography. Geoderma 230-231:329-339. doi:10.1016/j.geoderma.2014.04.020.


Soil mapping is a major goal of soil science. Soil maps rely upon accurate base maps, both for positional reference and to provide environmental data that can assist in the prediction of soil properties. This paper reviews the historical development of base maps used for soil mapping, and evaluates the dependence of soil mapping on base maps. The availability of geographic technology for producing base maps has both constrained and directed the geographic study of soil. The lack of accurate methods for determining location limited early geographic descriptions of soils to narratives, or to listings of attributes for property-based map units. The first real base maps available for soil mapping were outline maps produced in the late 18th century, fueled by governments’ interests in documenting national boundaries and popular interest in world atlases. These early soil maps primarily used outline maps as a positional reference onto which soil-related thematic detail was added. Eventually, additional spatial information, in the form of topographic maps and later aerial photographs, increased the predictive role of base maps in soil mapping. In the current digital, geospatial revolution, global positioning systems and geographic information systems have nearly replaced the positional reference function of base maps. Today, base maps are more likely to be used as parameters in soil-landscape models for predicting the spatial distribution of soil properties and classes. Formerly, as a reference for spatial position, paper base maps controlled the cartographic scale of soil maps. However, this relationship is no longer true in geographic information systems. Today, as parameters for digital soil maps, base maps constitute the library of predictive variables and constrain the supported resolution of the soil map.

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