Studying Midwest soil erosion from space | 4/20/2018 | Staff
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Geologist and geochemist Isaac Larsen at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is used to tramping around in the dirt to conduct his soil research, but satellite photos of the Iowa farmhouse where he grew up have added a new dimension to the work, and he now has a grant from NASA to study soils in a whole new way, from space.

An expert in soil production, erosion, human impact and the evolution of the agricultural landscape, Larsen has been awarded a three-year, $265,000 New Investigator Program grant from NASA's Earth Science Division, which supports innovative research by earth scientists early in their careers.

Erosion - Reduces - Fertility - Larsen - Production

Erosion reduces soil fertility, Larsen points out, resulting in diminished agricultural production. The cost in the U.S. reaches tens of billions of dollars a year and while many recognize the need to conserve soil, uncertainties remain about how big the problem is.

He says that developing soil loss estimates on large spatial scales is a daunting challenge. "There has been a lot of work on soil erosion on much smaller plots, but taking that information across the landscape is difficult," he notes. "Using remote sensing as a way to look at the broad scale is promising. We'll know in very fine detail where soil has been lost."

Hilltops - Larsen - Childhood - Home - Lake

Many hilltops around Larsen's childhood home in Clear Lake, Iowa, have lost all their topsoil and are worn down to glacial till. As he explains, "I could see the erosion from the ground, but it wasn't until after I'd been trained as a geomorphologist in graduate school that I was able to interpret the patterns of soil color as topsoil loss. I then wondered if the effects of erosion could be seen from space. They can, and looking at the pictures from space shows just how extensive the loss of topsoil is. Once you...
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