'Soil Is Not Dirt' - A Soil Scientist's Passion For The Stuff Beneath Our Feet

Aug 24, 2018

This summer Emma Thompson competed in an international soil judging competition in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. She judged individually and with a team from the U.S.
Credit Emma Thompson

The difference between dirt and soil may not be an argument most people take seriously or even think about. But one Utah State University soil-scientist student is getting her hands dirty to prove that soil is essential for life.

Emma Thompson, a senior studying land, plant and climate systems with an emphasis in soil science, said soil is much more complex than dirt.

“It drives me nuts because dirt is what you sweep up off of your floor and it’s what collects in your vacuum,” Thompson said. “It’s funny to get worked up about it, but I feel like every soil scientist I’ve ever met has gotten worked up about the word dirt.”

Thompson’s passion for soil and agriculture led her to be a top finisher in regional, national and world soil judging competitions. This summer Thompson competed in an international soil judging competition in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. She judged individually and with a team from the U.S.

“The competition consisted of two team pits and two individual pits and they were doozies!" she said. "They were tough pits, but they were so much fun!”

In these soil pit,s you can see different horizons or layers of soil stacked on top of each other, representing the environmental conditions of during each time period. Thompson said each of those layers give scientists clues about the history of the soil. By taking samples the students look at the texture to determine what the soil structure looks like and how water moved in the soil in each time period.

“All of that kind of gives you an idea of what to name the soil and it tells you exactly how each layer came to be,” Thompson said. “It gives you an idea of how old things are, where the water sits.”

Labeling the soil is the easy part. Thompson said the interpretation can be more difficult.

“The interpretation allows you to answer questions,” Thompson said. “How much water can it hold? How freely does water move throughout the profile? Can I grow vegetables on it? Can I do forestry on it? Can I build roads on it?”

Two teams from the U.S. competed in the contest – Team 1 took first in the group competition and Team 2, Thompson’s team, took second. Thompson took 12th in the individual category and her team took first in the combined scores category.

Soil judging is like being a soil detective for Thompson. She said the soil is full of life and humans need it to grow food, build buildings, and to live.