Sunday, September 4, 2016

Why I study subaqueous soils

I'm a few posts into this blog, and I keep referring to my research, so I suppose this is a good time to give a little bit of an introduction to it! I do have a handful of smaller projects, and of course my work here in Denmark, but for this post I'll focus on an introduction to my general field of study and how I got into it.

I have been interested in soils for long time, long before I even took my first course in soil science. A lot of soil scientists will say, "I got into soil science like every other soil scientist does, by accident," but I was fortunate to have my interest sparked at a young age. I really wanted to take that first course in soil science, and I was thus pretty receptive to the material in that class. My first brush with what has become my livelihood was a sidebar in Dr. Ray Weil's introductory soil science textbook discussing the work of George Demas, the first soil scientist to map soils underwater. I thought that it was a really interesting idea, particularly since I had also long been interested in the ecology of lakes, rivers, and seas. I tried to learn more about the topic of "subaqueous soils" but there weren't any popular science books on the subject, only some academic papers. A busy student, I didn't have a lot of free time and put that idea on the back-burner for the time being.

The following semester I took a 1-credit course, Acid Sulfate Soils, taught by Dr. Del Fanning. Del is quite a character, and that course will get its own post eventually, but in it he talked in more depth about subaqueous soils and the work of George Demas. I learned that part of the reason I might not have read much about the topic was that George had passed away shortly after receiving his PhD and becoming Dr. Demas. A few others had picked up on his work and continued to carry it forward (some of them still do), but the real founder of the discipline was gone, and his ideas had been largely untouched since the 1990s. But one of the great things about academic work is that it doesn't all die with you; your ideas and publications can live on. So I tracked down the copy of George's dissertation, the book you write when you get a PhD, in the University of Maryland library. I read it over spring break as an undergraduate, and decided I wanted to be a part of carrying that work forward.

That dissertation won George the Emil Truog award, a pretty serious award in soil science. Soil can be a tricky thing to define, not because it is fundamentally resistant to definition, but because so many different definitions have been used by so many different groups of people over such a long period of time. A civil engineer sees soil as loose material you can push around to build things with, a farmer sees it as what plants grow in, a hydrologist sees it as porous material that water flows through, and the list goes on. George showed that for many definitions and many purposes, shallow aquatic sediments had undergone "soil formation" and could be meaningfully understood as soils. From my interpretation of his perspective, soils were complex natural bodies of material that changed in predictable ways both across landscapes and with depth into those landscapes. That's essentially the definition that I have come to accept, and the application of that definition underwater fascinated me and continues to do so.

That fascination really came at the right place and the right time for me. I finished reading that dissertation and contacted Dr. Martin Rabenhorst, the professor who had been George's graduate adviser and who taught in my department. At the end of our first meeting I knew where I was applying for graduate school, and I didn't even bother applying anywhere else (though I did search extensively, I found no comparable opportunity). He had just gotten funding for a new student to study subaqueous soils, and I had expressed my interest at just the right moment.

So, in January of 2015 I began my PhD work in mapping the subaqueous soils of the Rhode River, a subestuary branching off of the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. I collect core samples and bathymetric (depth) data and compare them to find relationships between them, and to understand how the landscape has changed over time. I hope to identify areas for oyster reef restoration and aquaculture and to rank them based on their suitability. In doing so, I will also be identifying areas suited for other management practices, such as restoration of baygrass meadows or clam beds. And by understanding the relationships between the subaqueous landscape and the appropriate uses of the soils found in it, I will be making further surveys easier and faster, and helping to ensure that we're managing our natural resources as wisely as we can.

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