Story: Soil investigation

Page 5. Changing role of soil science: 1986 onwards

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Disbanding and decline

Major government restructuring in the late 1980s and early 1990s had an impact on soil investigations, especially because of the perceived duplication between different organisations. From 1987 the soil survey programme in the DSIR Soil Bureau was run down, and new soil maps and monographs were withheld from publication under a user-pays policy.

The break-up of the Ministry of Works (including the National Soils and Water Conservation Authority), Lands and Survey Department and NZ Forest Service led to many redundancies. Part of the remaining soil survey and conservation service moved to Crown research institutes that were formed in 1992, especially Landcare Research. But this has failed to resolve the fragmentation of soil science research, and funding continues to decline.

A long-term effect was a sharp decline in the number of postgraduate students of soil science, because of the perceived decline in job opportunities.

Wider scope

Soil surveying has expanded since the 1980s from mapping soils to include activities such as modelling the flow of nutrients through a landscape, identifying catchments prone to pollution, disposing of effluent, and sampling of contaminants such as cadmium and organochlorines.

The national carbon inventory began by collating all chemical data recorded in soil surveys from the 1960s to the 1980s, and now includes all data on carbon in New Zealand soils and vegetation.

The New Zealand Soil Classification

By the late 1970s the New Zealand genetic soil classification developed by Norman Taylor was outdated. Some soil classes were difficult to identify. A revised and updated version, the New Zealand Soil Classification, appeared in the 1980s, and is now widely used. It is based on orders, groups, subgroups and soil forms.

Do it yourself

A 1998 pilot project by AgResearch and Massey University staff looked at whether farmers could make their own soil maps. After a year of study, nine farmers from the Dannevirke area produced maps of their own properties. This meant they could understand soil variation on their own land, and improve farm management.

Revival in the south

A 1998–2001 survey of the soils of Southland (called Topoclimate South), initiated by the regional and district councils, aimed to find crops that might be grown in Southland. This involved monitoring the microclimate and producing soil maps, to make information easily available to farmers.

It spurred the Otago Regional Council into starting a similar project called growOTAGO, which produced a comprehensive set of soil maps. Much of the information is on the internet, and can be updated.

Soil maps in the 21st century

The national S-map programme, begun in 2004 by Landcare Research, builds on Topoclimate South and growOTAGO. All data is held digitally in the Geographic Information System. Different combinations of map data, including soils, climate and topography can be incorporated, and users can create and print maps at different scales for specific areas.

How to cite this page:

P. J. Tonkin, 'Soil investigation - Changing role of soil science: 1986 onwards', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 5 July 2020)

Story by P. J. Tonkin, published 24 Sep 2007