Five things everyone should know about . . . The Soils of Wisconsin

1 l Wisconsin’s soils were first mapped more than a century ago. The first soil map of Wisconsin was also the first ever made in the United States. It was produced in 1882 by geologist T.C. Chamberlin. In 1926, CALS soils professor Andrew Whitson created the second state soil map for his book Soils of Wisconsin. The third map followed 50 years later, compiled by eminent CALS soils professor Francis Hole. Since that time much new information and many insights have been gained, and these have been summarized in a fresh edition of The Soils of Wisconsin.

2 l The soils of Wisconsin are highly diverse. Nearly 80 percent of the state is covered with glacial deposits that differ in texture, composition, thickness and age (the Driftless Area, in western Wisconsin, was not glaciated in the most recent glacial period). There is a strong relationship between the soils and parent materials. The history of human impacts on soils in Wisconsin extends back 13,500 years but became intensified during the Late Woodland period (1,600 to 500 years Before Present) when fires were used to clear land, and further intensified in the mid-1800s when European settlers arrived and land clearing and large-scale crop production began.

3 l Many of Wisconsin’s soils are unique. There are more than 700 soil series (groups of soils with similar properties) in Wisconsin, and of these, 20 percent are considered endemic, having developed here through a unique combination of geology, plant communities and other factors. The “tension zone” between Wisconsin’s northern and southern forests contains 40 percent of these endemic soils while covering just 13 percent of the state’s land area. This zone also marks a transition not just in vegetation but in soil. The soils of the prairie, or Mollisols, mainly occur below the tension zone, and acid Spodosols, which often are forested, exist above it.

4 l Soils are affected by changes in climate. The melting of glaciers 11,000 years ago is a climatic event that affected Wisconsin’s soils, depositing millions of tons of glacial till and windblown, silty soil. For the future, we expect rising temperatures and increasing rainfall that will affect our soils and land use. In the winter, soils will cool more because of thinner snowpacks and less protection from freezing. The warming up will result in land use changes. Corn and soybean, for example, might be grown in areas that previously were unsuitable.

5 l Our soils yield profits. The soils in Wisconsin have a high yield potential and support an $88 billion industry. We observe highly significant correlations between the soil and such economic parameters as agricultural land value sales and adjusted gross income in every county of the state.

Layered features of vertically exposed prairie soil are pictured during a soil science class field trip to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Arlington Agricultural Research Station on May 27, 2014.
Photo credit: Jeff Miller/UW-Madison Communications

Give: A Light, Airy Space for Soil Science

“Soil is the hidden, secret friend, which is the root domain of lively darkness and silence.”
—Francis D. Hole (d. 2002), CALS professor of soil science

Francis D. Hole’s poetic description of soil rings true. But those who study soil also need friends who are neither “hidden” nor “secret”—and they also need to break the silence.

“Science is both a solitary and a social activity,” notes soil science professor and former department chair Bill Bland. “The social side of this is both formal, through meetings and publications, and informal—casual discussions in which ideas are gently improved and new understandings emerge serendipitously.”

The Soils and King Hall buildings, the home of soil science at CALS, are both cherished and historic, but they were designed nearly a century before architects understood how workspaces can foster such crucial interaction.

Plans are under way now to address that need by creating a light-infused space where soil science faculty, staff, graduate students and their collaborators can interact informally in a relaxed and pleasing environment.

The Jackson–Tanner Commons, as it is called—named after Marion Jackson and Champ Tanner, the first two soil science faculty members at CALS to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences—will be located in room 360 of the Soils Building. The room sits at the northeast corner of Soils, with views of the Lakeshore dorms and Lake Mendota to the north and the savannah and Elizabeth Waters dorm to the east, through five large windows. The room reveals wonderful architectural details of the Soils Building with its gabled ceiling and exposed steel column (see illustration of the planned renovated space).

Renovating the space will include removing two interior partitions, constructing a kitchenette area with running water and covering exposed electrical conduits. Furnishings, lighting, painting and carpet—and, possibly, the installation of air conditioning—will complete the job.

Faculty and staff are already envisioning how the presence of the Jackson–Tanner Commons will enhance their work.

“The informal setting of the Commons will create a space for conversations, creativity and community building,” says soil science professor and department chair Alfred Hartemink.

To contribute to the project, please visit or contact development director Jodi Wickham at (608) 308-5315,

IMAGE: Illustration of Jackson-Tanner Commons, now in planning.