Publications

Spatial statistics and soil mapping : A blossoming partnership under pressure

Heuvelink, Gerard B.M.; Webster, Richard

Résumé

For the better part of the 20th century pedologists mapped soil by drawing boundaries between different classes of soil which they identified from survey on foot or by vehicle, supplemented by air-photo interpretation, and backed by an understanding of landscape and the processes by which soil is formed. Its limitations for representing gradual spatial variation and predicting conditions at unvisited sites became evident, and in the 1980s the introduction of geostatistics and specifically ordinary kriging revolutionized thinking and to a large extent practice. Ordinary kriging is based solely on sample data of the variable of interest—it takes no account of related covariates. The latter were incorporated from the 1990s onward as fixed effects and incorporated as regression predictors, giving rise to kriging with external drift and regression kriging. Simultaneous estimation of regression coefficients and variogram parameters is best done by residual maximum likelihood estimation. In recent years machine learning has become feasible for predicting soil conditions from huge sets of environmental data obtained from sensors aboard satellites and other sources to produce digital soil maps. The techniques are based on classification and regression, but they take no account of spatial correlations. Further, they are effectively ‘black boxes’; they lack transparency, and their output needs to be validated if they are to be trusted. They undoubtedly have merit; they are here to stay. They too, however, have their shortcomings when applied to spatial data, which spatial statisticians can help overcome. Spatial statisticians and pedometricians still have much to do to incorporate uncertainty into digital predictions, spatial averages and totals over regions, and to take into account errors in measurement and spatial positions of sample data. They must also communicate their understanding of these uncertainties to end users of soil maps, by whatever means they are made.