Cranfield University

Management of large-scale soil and environmental data

Cranfield University’s Soil and Agrifood Institute promotes, interprets and applies soil information for the sustainable use of natural resources in the UK and worldwide.

At first glance, a handful of soil might be regarded as unpromising dirt. In fact, soil is integral to our ecosystem and provides essential functions: it delivers nutrients in agriculture, is a key element in events to do with flooding, drought and pollution, it supports a range of infrastructure and is part of the business of habitat and biodiversity protection.

Since 1987 the Cranfield University’s Soil and Agrifood Institute has managed the Soil Survey of England and Wales and is designated by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as the national reference centre for soils. It has identified over 750 different types of soil in England and Wales. Integrated with other data, this unique national resource forms the Land Information System, the largest environmental information system of its kind in Europe. The University has also led the collection of soils data from overseas, compiled in the World Soil Survey Archive and Catalogue. Alongside this, it has invested in new methodology, such as a big data visualisation suite, allowing it to analyse big data collections covering environmental resources from 350+ countries/territories.

The data sets and associated work of the Institute bring extensive benefits in everyday life. Farmers are equipped with better soils knowledge to increase agricultural production. The vast amount of data that the Institute holds also means that it can link soils data with climatic factors to identify subsidence risk and potential damage to national infrastructure such as roads and buried pipework. The University’s expertise in soils is shared nationally and globally to ensure soil is recognised as a vital natural resource.