U.S. Student Teams Win First-Ever International Soil Judging Contest
In the U.S. alone, thousands of soil scientists use the skill of “soil judging” in their daily jobs. They look at and feel the soil to determine its health, carbon content, drainage properties and other factors. Using only their eyes, sense of touch and a limited set of tools, they make land usage recommendations about agriculture, construction, wastewater treatment, recreation and more. In addition, many companies who hire crop advisors look for excellent soil judging skills. Indeed, the skills honed by soil judging are used by soil scientists around the world.
For this reason, the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) sent eight soil science students to the twentieth World Congress of Soil Science, Jeju Island, South Korea last week. Aided by two coaches, the students competed in the first International Soil Judging Contest. The students competed on two U. S. teams—the teams took first and second place in the overall competition, against thirteen teams. Tyler Witkowski, University of Maryland, placed second out of 45 contestants in the individual competition. Emily Salkind, Virginia Tech; Nancy Kammerer, Penn State; Julia Gillespie, Virginia Tech and Caitlin Hodges, University of Georgia finished fourth through eighth, respectively.
“Learning how to describe and evaluate soils in the field is an important part of training for soil scientists,” says Chris Baxter, the coach for the winning team, and a professor at University of Wisconsin-Platteville. “These are skills that the professional soil scientist uses every day. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them. The students worked very hard and were excellent ambassadors for the U.S. and for competitive soil judging.”
John Galbraith, a professor at Virginia Tech, was the coach for the second place team. “We are very proud of how the U.S. students represented themselves and their country, both in performance, character, and friendliness with other teams,” says Galbraith.
Students were selected based on their performance during the National Collegiate Soils Contest held earlier this year. The contest encourages team effort and individual knowledge in identifying, evaluating, classifying and describing soil profiles. The contest is a joint program of the SSSA and American Society of Agronomy. SSSA and its cooperating organization, the Agronomic Science Foundation (ASF), funded the students’ trips to Korea.
“Our experiences in Jeju were once in a lifetime opportunities,” says Witkowski. “We saw types of soils called Andisols and Melanic epipedons—which are not in abundance in the U.S. Seeing them was something new to all of us competing from the U.S. Seeing the soils was an experience, but meeting students from other countries interested in soils (and soil judging) was surreal. We had a great time meeting other people and looking at the soils.”
In the contest, participants described soil profiles using standard field techniques, classified the soil using either Soil Taxonomy or the World Reference Base, and provided interpretations for land use based on soil and site characteristics. Contestants were graded on the level of agreement between their descriptions and those made by a team of official judges from South Korea, the U.S., Australia and Hungary. The contest included an individual competition and a team competition where teams of up to four contestants worked together to create a single description. The overall team winner was determined by combining the individual and team scores.
“I had the most amazing experience being part of the first International Soil Judging Contest,” says Nancy Kammerer, a student at Penn State University. “Meeting other students from around the world, getting to see new soils and ways of classifying soils and touring the beautiful island of Jeju are all things I will remember for a lifetime. The World Congress of Soil Scientists and the Koreans were the most gracious hosts and helped to make this trip extraordinary.”
“The World Congress of Soil Science organization of Korea did a marvelous job in supporting the first international soil judging contest,” says Jan Hopmans, president of SSSA and a professor at University of California-Davis. “SSSA thought it was important to send students to the competition. Having the students meet others also studying soil science from different countries, compete and interact with them is important for global camaraderie, understanding of various cultures and a great way to jumpstart international collaborations. Also, with the International Year of Soils starting in 2015, activities such as the International Soil Judging Contest increase awareness of the relevance of soils, as the students network and share their experiences using their own social media.”
Student competitors sponsored by SSSA and ASF were: Tyler Witkowski, University of Maryland; Emily Salkind, Virginia Tech; Caitlin Hodges, University of Georgia; Kyle Weber, University of Wisconsin-Platteville; Bianca Peixoto, University of Rhode Island; Julia Gillespie, Virginia Tech; Nancy Kammerer, Penn State; and Brian Maule, Northern Illinois University.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.