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Soils, Sediments, and Society



[BSc], EES, S, GC

Admission Requirements

At least one of these Global Challenges courses: Environmental Change, Earth, or Sustainability.

Recommended: Introduction to Geographic Information Systems, Earth System Science.

Students will have to complete assignments using GIS. Nevertheless, assignments with a GIS component are designed as group assignments thus allowing students to participate with no or little skills in using GIS.


Soil is a distinct and genuine natural body of the Earth whose properties are essential to all terrestrial life. Still, soil is also the most overlooked environmental resource. Understanding the complexity of soil formation and soil diversity, therefore is key. Soil forms due to a complex interplay of a range of abiotic and biotic environmental processes leading to diversity of soils around us. At the same time, soil development alters the effectiveness of abiotic landscape processes (e.g., geomorphic processes like erosion, deposition, or water cycling, etc.) and biotic ecosystem processes. Students are presented with a number of fundamental influences and processes of soil formation. Furthermore, course contents cover relationships of soil development, land use impacts on soils and corresponding past to present processes of environmental change. Students are going to

  • Gain understanding of how soils are formed and classified by learning about important soil processes and their influence on soil behavior

  • Learn how to recognize and classify soils based on own field observations (mapping)

  • Gain understanding of how soil data is represented on maps or in soil information systems by producing a map themselves (using a GIS)

  • Examine the formation, properties and the role of soils in a variety of the world’s terrestrial geosystems (global examples, still with a focus on central European environments)

  • Learn about historic and current issues of soil erosion and corresponding impacts on soils and river environments, and associated past to present processes of environmental change

  • Appreciate soil functions and the world soil resource base, and understand the importance of its conservation.

Important Information

The course program includes a mandatory four-day field stay in the Rhenish Slate Mountains. Participating in this course, therefore, means

  • To participate in the mandatory 4-days field stay (23 April – 26 April 2015) because its contents and own field data sampling are essential to understanding basic concepts of soil sciences (parent materials, formation, classification, geography) and completing assignments

  • To miss at least one class meeting in any other course that meets on a Wednesday afternoon and Friday (April 23 and 24).

  • That you have to cover costs of transportation, accommodation and food out of your own pocket.

  • To organize your travel to and back from the field site on your own.

LUC will probably financially support the field stay by partially taking over costs for accommodation (~110 EU per student). However, more detailed information can only be provided later. Costs for travel depend on your choice of transportation but may range from 50 to 120 EU (at most). Again, note this is preliminary information and subject to change.

Please, only sign up for the course if you can agree on these conditions.

Course Objectives

This course teaches students in basic methods employed to retrieve, process and evaluate spatial-distributed field data in order to describe and understand environmental processes of soil formation and soil-changing processes triggered by human use of the soil resource. By the end of this course, students are expected to:

  • Detail what processes characterize the development of natural soils and how the legacy of landscape evolution, topographic setting, climate and biotic factors determine soil properties in various environmental settings

  • Place soil and land use issues in the context of both longer-term and current environmental change

  • Know how human activities modify rates, intensities and spatial occurrence of soil erosion, colluviation, and floodplain sedimentation

  • Exhibit basic skills in field description and identification of soils

  • Depict spatial soil information based on their own field sampling

  • Assess the sustainability of soil use for different historic and present cases of soil erosion through both critical evaluation of the literature and field data

  • Place losses of the soil resource in its broader social, economic and institutional settings

By the completion of a seminar paper and a field report, students will be trained in skills, procedures, methods and subjects that are eligible for Capstone research projects.

Mode of Instruction

This course will use the reading and discussion of textbook chapters and journal articles to further the understanding of fundamentals of soil formation and soilscape change through natural processes and/or human activities. The course comprises lectures, discussions of learning materials and student presentations. Field teaching is essential to this course to make students familiar with the diverse nature of soils. Also, students will conduct self-dependent soil mapping as a team followed by editing a map of soil types on their own. Some in-class time will be used to work on assignments (including GIS works as group assignment), still students will have to complete more time-consuming assignments referring to class contents and field exercises (data processing and evaluation) between class meetings.


Students are required to have read assigned readings to prepare class participation (10%). Two short-report group assignments (2 × 15%) will relate to field data sampling and are building blocks towards working on the final report (group assignment, 2500 words; 15%). Furthermore, students will be assessed on the basis of an individual seminar paper of >3000 words (30%) and a related in-class presentation (15%) on a specific topic (e.g., macronutrient cycling, heavy metals in soils, ancient civilizations and soil erosion, etc.).


There will be no required textbook for the course because there is no single one that covered the material discussed in class. Relevant course material will be made available through BlackBoard. Nevertheless, to study fundamentals of soil formation and properties we will use:

Schaetzl, R.J., Anderson, S., 2005. Soils: Genesis and Geomorphology. Cambridge (USA), Cambridge University Press, 817 p.

Again, it is not required to purchase this book (it is a great textbook though).

Contact Information

Weekly Overview

This schedule is subject to change by the instructor depending on weather conditions, number of course participants or how the course advances.

Week 1 Introduction to the course, soil definitions and soil constituents, the rock cycle
Week 2 Soil formation processes
Week 3 Legacies of landscape evolution and soil development in central Europe; 4-day field stay
Week 4 Field stay, wrap-up of field data sampling
Week 5 Field data processing and GIS-based soil mapping (no class meeting)
Week 6 Soils as regulators of biogeochemical cycling (N, P, C, contaminants); Soil degradation, soil erosion
Week 7 Feed the world: soils, land use change, climate change
Week 8 Reading week