Research Assistant Colleen Smith crouches low to the ground over a tray of crumbled soil. Using a boxy grey device that looks like a heavy-duty flashlight, she presses the flat glass end against the soil and fires a beam of infrared energy that bounces off the soil and back into the device’s sensor. 

In moments, a readout pops up on a tablet screen, showing a spectrum of reflected light. With some analysis, Smith will have data on the chemical makeup of this patch of ground. With enough data points, she could estimate the soil properties of an entire field, pasture, ranch or farm, and how it might be changing over time. 

Soil spectroscopy is a newer but fast-growing technique employed by scientists studying soil composition. At Woodwell Climate Research Center, a group led by Carbon Program Director Dr. Jonathan Sanderman has been spearheading its use to help improve the availability and affordability of reliable soil quality information, which is essential if we want to get serious about soil carbon sequestration as a natural climate solution.

Why soil spectroscopy?

“The heart of the technology is essentially getting the fingerprint of the soil, which tells us something about the overall chemical makeup of that sample,” says Dr. Sanderman.

The principles of soil spectroscopy are based in nuclear physics. Elements in the soil react in unique ways to the energy from the electromagnetic spectrum, reflecting some wavelengths and absorbing others. The reflected wavelengths give scientists clues to which minerals and elements are present and in what quantities.

That information can then be related to certain soil properties, like whether it’s suitable for certain crops, or whether it’s effectively sequestering carbon. The former is valuable information for producers like ranchers or farmers who need to make land management decisions. The latter is what climate researchers are most interested in. Soil spectroscopy represents an opportunity to marry the interests of both.

In a single scan, soil spectroscopy can estimate carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, moisture, pH levels, and more. Traditional methods rely on multi-step chemical analyses to get you the same information— a time consuming and expensive process that could involve grinding, drying, weighing, mixing with reagents, and other steps to extract information on just one or two indicators of soil quality. 

“With soil spectroscopy, you can get a pretty large suite of properties from one sixty second scan. A lab needs easily $2 million worth of instruments to be able to make all the same measurements using traditional methods,” says Dr. Sanderman. The most precise soil spectrometers can cost $100,000, but lower resolution and portable ones are substantially cheaper. “The speed and cost of spectroscopy are unmatched.”

Soil Spectroscopy for Global Good

These benefits make soil spectroscopy a method with big potential, but according to Dr. Sanderman there is still work to be done in refining the methodology to get universally accurate data. Alongside collaborators from the University of Florida and OpenGeoHub, he started the Soil Spectroscopy for the Global Good project (SS4GG) to jumpstart that work.

The project focused on two main efforts. The first was an extensive inter-laboratory comparison to understand how much the accuracy of scans varies between different instruments. Twenty laboratories across the globe participated, scanning identical samples which were then compared to the output from a lab widely regarded as the gold-standard in accuracy. The results were published in Geoderma late last year.

“We demonstrated that there is lab-to-lab variability, but also that there are procedures we can use to correct for differences between laboratories and get better integration of data,” says Postdoctoral Researcher, Dr. José Safanelli, who coordinated the study.

The second goal was to pool data from different labs into one accessible and open-source resource that also provides tools to analyze the data. The Open Soil Spectral Library (OSSL) now hosts over 100,000 soil spectra from across the globe that scientists can incorporate into their research and offers an engine for analysis. The idea is that with more people using and contributing soil spectral data, the faster the technology and the information gained from it will advance. 

“We hope that the OSSL will be a driver of the soil spectroscopy community, advancing the pace of scientific discovery, and promoting innovation,” says Dr. Safanelli.

Building a community of soil scientists

Throughout the project, SS4GG efforts remained dedicated to transparency. 

“We were always available to answer questions. We shared best practices and gave advice on which instruments are better, which manufacturers are the best in the market, and which procedures to use to collect spectra,” says Dr. Safanelli. 

According to Dr. Sanderman, that openness fostered trust and collaboration— in both contributing data to the OSSL and participating in the inter-laboratory study— strengthening the community of scientists using soil spectroscopy.

“As we built momentum, more groups began to contribute,” says Dr. Sanderman. “It’s been great to see people realizing the value of collaborative, open science. People are now taking advantage of the foundation we’ve built.”

The soil spectroscopy community convened this past year for several webinars and presentations, including the Agronomy, Crop, and Soil Science Society meeting, where Drs. Sanderman and Safanelli hosted a training workshop and symposium on spectroscopy, as well as a two-day immersive workshop on the future of the field. 

“We all benefit when this technology is more widely used,” says Smith.

Soil carbon as a climate solution

Speeding up the pace of soil science is key for developing climate solutions. Agricultural soils represent a large potential carbon sink; changes in farming and ranching practices can encourage sequestration of carbon in the soils. Soil carbon markets, and other payment for ecosystem services schemes could incentivise producers to make sustainable management decisions and soil spectroscopy could be a useful tool to track their contributions.

“The ultimate goal is to better monitor soils across landscapes to make food production more sustainable,” says Dr. Safanelli.

The handheld device that Smith was using is a test case for the speed and convenience of soil spectroscopy for analyzing soil carbon. If testing the quality of your soils can be as simple as a 60 second measurement with a low-cost piece of portable equipment, and the scan can get you additional information about soil fertility, then why not participate? 

“We are trying to verify that we actually are sequestering carbon, and that requires lots and lots of measurements. So this is where we start moving into field-based spectroscopy,” says Dr. Sanderman. “If we can eliminate bringing the sample back to the lab altogether, we’re cutting our costs by another order of magnitude and could potentially scan several hundred points in a field in a day.”

Smith theorizes that cost could be further diffused through farming cooperatives or extension offices offering soil testing using inexpensive spectrometers. “Soil spectroscopy could be an easier way to get answers to big questions,” says Smith. “And that’s exciting.”

With the OSSL now up and running, the team is now focusing efforts on maintaining the growing network of interested soil researchers, pursuing new opportunities for collaboration as they arise.

“The network is getting stronger,” says Dr. Safanelli. “More people are coming and reaching out to us. That’s our biggest contribution: creating a network and sharing information across the community.”

In a busy hallway of the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage, Alaska, Arctic Communications Specialist, Jess Howard, and Climate Adaptation Specialist, Brooke Woods, stand in front of a large print-out of a map of Alaska. The map was created by Greg Fiske, Senior Geospatial Analyst at Woodwell Climate, to show the topography of the state in artfully shaded greens, browns, and whites. At the moment it is covered in handwritten notes. 

Woods had suggested they bring the map to the Alaska Forum on the Environment (AFE) and invite conference attendees to add notes describing their community’s experiences with the impacts of climate change. Their table remained crowded throughout the day, as people stopped to point out the rivers and mountain ranges around where they lived, and swap stories about erosion, flooding, permafrost thaw, and missing species.

“Even on this huge map of Alaska,” says Howard. “People were coming up and immediately saying ‘there’s this river, there we are.’ Knowing exactly where to point was just so immediate because of the deep connection Alaska Native communities have to the land and water, of which they are the original stewards.”

Fiske who, alongside Cartographer Christina Shintani, leads the Center’s map-making activities, has seen many moments like this one over his decades-long career—moments where maps start conversations, foster connections, and get people thinking. It’s the reason he brings maps with him wherever he goes, and encourages others to do the same. It’s the reason he keeps a table at the Center’s offices covered in printed maps, sometimes finished pieces for display, sometimes draft versions to workshop. 

Because when the maps come out, so do the stories. And the stories help us better understand our place in the changing world.

Making maps is a method of discovery

“But Google Maps exists. Haven’t all the maps been made already?”

Fiske and Shintani have heard it before: the idea that “everything has already been mapped.” Why should we create new maps of familiar places?

In a world beset by hundreds of transformative forces, of which climate change is one, Shintani responds that cartography is just as important now, if not more important than ever.

“The world is constantly changing,” says Shintani. “If it weren’t, we wouldn’t spend billions of dollars to capture satellite imagery every minute of the day. Political boundaries change every year, glaciers disappear, wildfires break out and alter the landscape, and we have to map the physical and social phenomena to understand that changing world.”

The act of creating a map can also be a method of revealing something new from existing data, which is why cartography plays a central role in research at Woodwell Climate.

Fiske and Shintani field frequent requests from scientists for maps to accompany research papers. According to Fiske, “sometimes the data for that is readily available, but sometimes it takes an entire geospatial analysis to derive what you need to make the map. And you won’t really know until you start iterating.” Often, viewing data on a map will inspire new scientific questions for researchers to chase down. The act of creating maps is not just an end product, it can be a critical step in the scientific process.

Cartography requires a little bit of everything

In their time at the Center, Fiske and Shintani have worked on maps detailing forest carbon in the United States, global drought forecasts, fire detections in the Amazon rainforest, and Arctic communities located on permafrost ground—they are no strangers to working across disciplines.

“Cartographers are generalists,” says Shintani. “We have to know a little bit about a lot of things, which actually benefits us as climate communicators, since the maps we’re making aren’t meant to inform other expert climate scientists, they are trying to convey information to everyone else.”

“Cartography isn’t really one profession,” Fiske clarifies. “It’s a collection of professions.”

A modern cartographer, according to Fiske, is a data analyst, a statistician, a designer, a programmer, a storyteller, and an artist all rolled into one. Skills from each profession, and a healthy curiosity about a hundred other topics, are required in order to create maps that are informative, attention-grabbing, and intuitive to read. Fiske entered into cartography through the world of computer coding, discovering an affinity for programming in his high school’s computer lab. He picked up the other skills later, with guidance from mentors, learning first to apply coding to geospatial data, and then how to display that data visually, and even make it beautiful. 

Shintani’s entryway into cartography was through science. She had intended to study the physical geography of rivers, when a class on cartography changed her direction.

“With maps, I could organize everything in a way that made sense to me—because the world is so often organized in ways that don’t make sense—and I could make them beautiful,” says Shintani. “It was the first time I felt like I was really good at something.” 

Fiske and Shintani’s cartographic talents eventually brought them both to Woodwell Climate, where their knowledge of various fields has helped them solve research questions and communicate new findings to the public. 

“The day-to-day involves bringing together datasets, developing a clear story, making it look intuitive through design, taking the experts’ thoughts and data and making it a little more tangible for folks,” says Shintani.

To map something is to understand it

In another era, a cartographer might also have been somewhat of an adventurer—conducting expeditions to map hills and valleys, using mathematical conversions to capture the detailed curves of a coastline in a meticulously hand-drawn document. These days, cartography has much more to do with sitting behind a computer, manipulating massive datasets created by satellite observation and tweaking color pallets and font sizes using a variety of software. 

The proliferation of satellite data has made the process of map-making much quicker and more accessible—no longer requiring long expeditions just to gather information on topography or ground cover. It’s allowed a shortcut to understanding the shape of places you’ve never been. A shortcut, Fiske says, but not a replacement.

“I would never have been able to make that map,” says Fiske, referring to the map of Alaskan topography that Howard and Woods brought to AFE, which earned him two awards from the Esri User Conference earlier this year. “If I hadn’t been to Alaska, seen it from an airplane, looked at those mountains, and seen what it looks like between the green valleys and the white glaciers.”

Travel is something Fiske believes should remain a part of the cartographer’s toolkit whenever possible, because a thorough understanding of a place is critical to being able to map it. Things like the natural colors of the landscape at different times of year, the true scale of glaciers when you are standing beneath them, the shape of a slumping and eroding hillside, give a fuller picture of the reality on the ground.

“A good map is a close connection to reality,” says Fiske. The closer to reality a map is, the more intuitive it is to orient yourself on it, understand the information the map is trying to convey. Fiske travels regularly, joining float trips with Science on the Fly or Permafrost Pathways’ visits to field sites and Alaska Native partner communities. He plays a role in the science, helping navigate and collect data, but values the experiences more for the insights he can use to inform future maps.

“If you’ve stood on the tundra,” he says. “Then you can make a better map of the tundra.”

A place in the world

A decade ago, Fiske recalls, he was helping a colleague map her work studying chimpanzees in the Congo Rainforest. 

“We were going through and pulling coordinates out, sifting through notebooks that had obviously been sitting in the field for years, covered in water stains and mud.” They were overlaying documented nesting sites with data on forest type and at some point, Fiske turned around and realized she was in tears. 

“Seeing it formulate on the screen, she was overcome with emotions,” says Fiske. “The map reflected what she had been carrying around in her mind the whole time.” 

Maps, in Fiske’s experience, create instant—sometimes emotional—connections between people and places. They place individuals in the context of the wider world and put long-held ideas down on paper to be shared.

Which is why Fiske believes anyone can and should make maps. He has been helping the Permafrost Pathways team bring cartography into their work with Indigenous Arctic communities through a method called participatory mapping, which combines community input with technical expertise to create maps representing collective knowledge. Howard is also working with Fiske to create a digital version of his Alaskan topography map that incorporates the stories shared through the exercise at AFE. 

Looking forward, Fiske wants to push his career more and more towards helping others create maps. Because everyone has stories to share about the places they know—whether they come from generations spent living on a landscape, or one lifetime’s work spent studying a single ecosystem. 

“I want to help folks make maps,” says Fiske. “And tell their story.”

“There are so many cultural differences to consider,” notes Dave McGlinchey. “From how the meetings proceed, to specific local sensitivities, even down to Congolese humor. Even if I was cracking jokes in fluent French, it would be impossible to get the tone right. That’s why having someone like Joseph was so important.”

In July, McGlinchey, Chief of Government Relations at Woodwell Climate, traveled with members of the Center’s risk team to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo for a two-day workshop. The Center has been involved in community work in the country for over 15 years, led in large part by Joseph Zambo, Woodwell’s policy coordinator in the DRC. This workshop represents the latest collaboration— an initial assessment of the country’s future climate risks. Congolese professors, scientists, and government officials joined to discuss gaps in the data and to develop adaptation strategies to be included in a final report later this year.

The workshop was facilitated by Zambo who, with poignant questions, stories to recount, and of course, a bit of humor, guided the group through the tough work of planning for the future. 

Expanding access to climate risk data

The community risk work in Kinshasa is one of over 20 successful risk assessments conducted as part of Woodwell Climate’s Just Access initiative. The project produces free, location-specific climate risk analysis for cities and regions both in the US and abroad. The hope is that, by providing free access to quality data— something often offered by private companies at prohibitively high costs — Just Access can facilitate adaptation planning for under-resourced communities. 

“With Just Access, we want to remove the barrier of cost for communities that want to understand the long-term risks they are facing because of climate change,” says McGlinchey. “Often these communities are the ones already facing climate-related challenges that will worsen as the century goes on.”

Guided by a community’s particular concerns, Woodwell’s Risk team works with available data on key climate risks—flooding, heat, water scarcity, fire— and uses models to construct an image of how those events are likely to change as global temperatures climb. In the DRC, water is a core concern, both in its absence, causing drought and crop failure, and in its abundance. 

“Heavy rains cause horrific flooding in the city of Mbandaka almost once or twice a year,” says Zambo. “In the capital, heavy rains are also destroying homes, roads, electrical structures, and internet connections.”

The most pressing risks vary from region to region. Across the world, in Acre, Brazil, Senior Scientist Emeritus Dr. Foster Brown says, “the word here is ‘heat.’” In Homer and Seldovia, Alaska, increasing wildfire days featured heavily. 

But improvements in data availability and resolution, as well as refinements of climate models, have made it possible to replicate assessments for a variety of risks in places as distant and different from each other as Homer, Alaska and Kerala, India. Risk assessments can offer both region-wide crop yield estimates and street-level maps of flooding for a single city district to inform community planning.

It’s about building trust

Key to the success of municipal-level work are relationships with people like Zambo, who can offer insights into the needs of a community that can’t be approximated from the outside. Each community is different— in what information they need to make decisions, their level of technical expertise, their governmental capacity to implement changes, and in the ways they prefer to work.

So, with each new assessment, the Risk team starts from scratch, building new relationships and listening to community needs. This process takes double time on the international stage, where a history of superficial NGO and academic involvement can overshadow collaboration. 

“A main goal with these reports is trust,” says Darcy Glenn, a Woodwell Climate research assistant who organized a risk assessment and workshop for Province 1 in Nepal last year with help from connections from her master’s program. “Building trust in the models, and trust in the methodology, and in us. That’s been our biggest hurdle when working with municipal leaders.”

Building that trust takes time. Province 1 was one of an early set of communities who worked with Woodwell Climate on risk assessments. While local leaders were interested in flooding and landslide risk information, what they really wanted was to increase the capacity of their own scientists and government employees to conduct climate modeling themselves. So the project was adapted to meet that need by tailoring a training workshop. The process took over a year to complete but Glenn says, that’s relationship-building time that can’t be rushed. 

It also highlights the importance of pre-established long term connections in the places we work.

“It’s one thing to go into a new community by yourself, it’s another to go in with someone who has been there 30 years and can help navigate,” says Dr. Brown. “You have to look for the key people who can help make things happen.”

Within Brazil, Dr. Brown is now regarded as one of these “key people”. He has been living and working in Rio Branco for over 30 years and his credibility as a member of the community helped facilitate an assessment of extreme heat risk in the region. In the DRC, Zambo has been working with Woodwell Climate on various projects for over a decade. Without their expertise to bridge cultural and language gaps, completing projects in Brazil and the DRC would not have been possible. 

Working for the Future

After getting risk information into the hands of communities, then comes the hard work of putting it to use. For Dr. Christopher Schwalm, Director of Woodwell Climate’s Risk Program, “the goal of the risk assessments is to give communities every potential tool we can to build resilience for themselves and future generations. With access to the right information, the next step in the adaptation planning process can begin.”

In Rio Branco, Dr. Brown says speaking to the changes people are already noticing has helped individuals connect better to the data. He’s been using the context of heat and fire alongside information from their report to strengthen conversations about existing forest and climate initiatives, authoring an alert for the tri-national “MAP” region (Madre de Dios in Peru, Acre in Brazil, and Pando in Bolivia) about heat conditions and the implications for this year’s fire season.

He has also been introducing the information from the report to the community in other ways— teaching and speaking at events. According to Dr. Brown, widespread understanding of both near- and long-term climate risks will become more important for all communities as climate change progresses and impacts each place differently. Cities and towns will need reliable information to help them practically plan for the future.

“We’re trying to get people to expand their time ranges and start thinking about the future. And this report has helped,” says Dr. Brown. “Because the people who are going to see 2100 are already here. What will we be able to tell them about their future?”

In a world plagued by rapid change and challenges, I think many of us are asking the question: “How can I help?” As individuals, it can be hard to find a way to give back and help steward the natural resources we rely on. But, for those who love fly fishing—anglers—Science on the Fly offers a path to do just that. 

Science on the Fly engages the enthusiastic and passionate fly-fishing community, in the US and abroad, as community scientists. Members of the fly-fishing community have close relationships with their local rivers—from having a favorite fishing hole, to knowing the seasonally anticipated flows of the river and when certain bugs are hatching. They also are more aware than most of the impacts of climate change on local fisheries. In states like Colorado or Montana, anglers have given up the opportunity of even casting a fly rod at some points in the summer season. Why? The trout are too stressed and lethargic due to the droughts and rising water temperatures.

Crowdsourcing climate data

Our fly-fishing community scientists are excellent resources for data collection and observation of climate trends to create a clearer picture of how rivers are changing over time. With their help, we can increase the number of rivers subject to long-term studies of water quality and watershed health. Since Science on the Fly was founded in 2019, we have collected data on nutrients and organic compounds from over 350 river sites across the United States each month.

The science collection process is straight-forward and easy. Sample locations are chosen for their accessibility and interest to fly-fishing volunteers, who are responsible for collecting a small bottle of sterile river water from each location once a month, as well as data on air and water temperature. They then freeze the bottles and bulk ship them back to Woodwell Climate Research Center one or two times a year. 

At Woodwell Climate’s Environmental Chemistry Lab, we analyze the concentrations of nutrients such as nitrate, phosphate, silica, ammonium, dissolved organic carbon, and total dissolved nitrogen. All data is shared publicly, and after we have a year’s worth of data, we write a report of the state of the river for those sampling locations.

A rapidly expanding network

This project got to where it is extremely quickly. A year after the program was founded, we had grown from two community scientists to 140 enthusiastic river activists. Over the course of four years, more than 7,000 bottles have been placed into the hands of our empowered community scientists. 

It is easy to see how we got here so fast; when we offer a tool-kit that is free to the passionate angler and can help them give back to their watershed, they want to get involved. While it isn’t necessarily cheap for us, at a cost equaling $100 a bottle, it is an extremely effective way to add novel data to the climate science dataset on many watersheds—information we wouldn’t be able to gather otherwise.

We’re now exploring how best to integrate Science on the Fly’s water quality sampling and community scientist model with Woodwell Climate’s important research in the Alaskan Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region. Located at the lowest section of the permafrost belt, this region is experiencing rapid thaw as the climate warms. We ask: Could water quality collection be done in a way that tells the story of the rivers over time? Could anglers floating down these remote rivers provide samples in a timely manner? The answers, we’ve found, are yes, but it has taken some practice to get there, and the region presented unique challenges that we didn’t encounter in other regions.

Our core team at Science on the Fly now rafts, researches, and fishes vulnerable and wild rivers in this region—including the Arolik, Kanektok, Kisaralik, Kwethluk, and the Goodnews—each summer season. Each morning of the trip, the teams gear up and take a variety of samples and water quality measurements—including the collection of our 60 mL sterile river water samples. We also install or retrieve water temperature monitoring sensors in the watershed, so we can see river temperatures from the entire year. Some samples collected during the trips are used directly for the Science on the Fly program, while others help collect data for different research projects associated with Woodwell Climate or other organizations.

Building partnerships to sustain science

These research trips are only answering some of our questions, however. We still want to see these rivers’ nutrient concentrations throughout the summer season—not just when we’re floating (which is normally 10 or fewer days per river). Like most science, it’s not cheap. It’s also not easy to logistically coordinate a river research trip—all the gear, travel, food, science supplies, safety equipment, and qualified team members to float—from afar.

PapaBear Adventures in Bethel, Alaska is our answer to the other half of the questions. PapaBear is an operation that helps the adventurous outdoors person get to the headwaters of remote rivers, and gives them the tools they need to float the rivers on their own. They have been instrumental in meeting the transportation needs of other Woodwell Climate projects like the Polaris Program, and now they are helping Science on the Fly get anglers out to the rivers throughout the summer season.

Beyond working with PapaBear on transportation, Science on the Fly now stations a team member—me or Joe Mangiafico, for now—at PapaBear for the summer months. This team member preps the research team’s trips, making sure they are properly prepared to go down the rivers with all materials needed. But their main goal is to encourage other PapaBear clients and their groups to be involved in the sampling. Pre-made kits are handed out to groups floating these rivers. After the groups get off the rivers, our team member retrieves the filled sample kits and freezes them for shipping back to Woodwell Climate.

The data that has returned from these endeavors is already exciting.

 In summer 2021, our Science on the Fly research team sampled 2 rivers, the Kwethluk and Kisaralik, and by a lucky ask to some passing groups of anglers, the Kanektok and Goodnews Rivers were sampled as well. There were a total of 45 samples collected that summer. The following summer, the combination of Science On The Fly research teams and new efforts to increase engagement with volunteer community science groups, allowed us to increase collection to 248 sample bottles. We were able to successfully increase data collection on the other rivers of the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta, and added the Arolik to our list. We hope to accomplish even more in years to come.   

Four years of Science on the Fly has shown that community scientists and community science programs can be a powerful way to collect data, conduct research, and educate the public through our reports. Now that we’ve built a solid project structure, with data coming in consistently, we are beginning to switch gears and make an impact with report writing and affecting policy—all while continuing to add to the growing body of water and climate science. We’ll be using community-collected data to create tangible reports for anglers to better understand their watersheds. We will then use these reports to help make an impact on policies, with the goal of creating or maintaining healthy watersheds, especially in the face of climate change. We look forward to continuing to give back to our community scientists and to our rivers.


To learn more about Science on the Fly, visit our website.