Rare earth

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Science  07 Nov 2014:
Vol. 346, Issue 6210, pp. 692-695
DOI: 10.1126/science.346.6210.692

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In the southeastern United States, the Cecil soil—a yellowish topsoil underlain by layers of sticky red clay—is a regional icon. It's North Carolina's state soil. But the Cecil is also increasingly endangered by farming and development. Endangered dirt? Not that long ago, few researchers would have talked up the idea. But in recent years, efforts to identify the world's rare and endangered soils have been gaining momentum. Aided by increasingly powerful geographic information systems and Earth-observing sensors, researchers have begun mapping "pedodiversity"—the distribution and extent of different soils. This past summer, for example, Chinese researchers released the first-ever pedodiversity survey of that huge nation, identifying nearly 90 endangered soils—as well as at least two dozen that have already gone extinct. Similar surveys suggest unique dirt is also in danger in the United States, Europe, and Russia. And just as biologists have stepped up efforts to protect biodiversity, soil scientists are now trying to call attention to the need to preserve pedodiversity.

  • * Michael Tennesen is a writer living near Joshua Tree National Park, California. He is the author of the forthcoming The Next Species: The Future of Evolution in the Aftermath of Man (Simon and Schuster).

  • With reporting by David Malakoff.

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