Latest News

March 21, 2016

It may be a dim first day of Spring in Happy Valley but we aren't. Left, Shauna Kay Rainford, right Katie Speicher.

January 22, 2016

The PSU SCL is recruiting an MS student to begin July 1, 2016. This student will work with Dr. Drohan, and Drs. Diefenbach and McDill in the ESM department, on a PA Bureau of Forestry study examining how soil chemistry may influence forbe chemistry and deer health. Interested students should contact Dr. Drohan at

November 20, 2015

"Riverine wetlands are perhaps the most important type of wetland to humanity due to dependence on them for supporting aspects of navigation, food, power production, development, flood control and recreation (Smith et al., 2008). Today, their protection is essential for flood control and wildlife habitat, and these goals have resulted in numerous efforts at restoring degraded function."

November 3, 2015

How do a landscape and its people evolve through time? SOILS 499A examines this question and focuses particularly on the role natural resource management has played in the evolution of culture, society, and civilization.

October 2, 2015

Riparian wetlands are well known for providing the important ecosystem service of carbon storage. However, changes in land-use regimes surrounding riparian wetlands have been shown to result in alterations to the wetland plant community. These plant community changes have the potential to alter litter quality, decomposition rates, and ultimately the capacity of riparian wetlands to store carbon. To determine the effects of plant community shifts associated with disturbance on decomposition and carbon inputs, we performed a yearlong decomposition experiment using in situ herbaceous material, leaf litter, and control litter and examined biomass inputs in six headwater riparian wetlands in central Pennsylvania. Two sites were classified as Hemlock-Mixed Hardwood Palustrine Forest, two were classified as Broadleaf Palustrine Forest, and two were classified as Reed Canary Grass-Floodplain Grassland (Zimmerman et al. 2012). Plant matter with greater initial percent C, percent lignin, and lignin:N ratios decomposed more slowly while plant matter with greater initial cellulose decomposed more quickly. However, no significant differences were found between plant community types in decomposition rate or amount of carbon remaining at the end of the experiment, indicating that the differences in plant community type did not have a large impact on decomposition in riparian wetlands. This work has important implications for studies that examine the decomposition dynamics of a few select species, as they may not capture the decomposition dynamics of the plant community and thus extrapolating results from these studies to the larger ecosystem may be inappropriate. Wetlands Ecol. & Mgmt. DOI 10.1007/s11273-015-9459-6

August 28, 2015

This summer Jim Thompson of West Virginia University hosted the 2015 Northeast Pedology Graduate Student trip. Students were able to see mineland reclamation, amazing old-growth deciduous and spruce forests, research on non-equilibrium ecology in the recovering high-altitude spruce forests, beautiful wetland systems in Canaan Valley and experience tubing on the Cheat River! Thanks Jim for hosting a great trip.

July 9, 2015

"Reforesting After Fracking: Working To Restore Pennsylvania’s Drilled Land While most of the attention on the impacts of fracking has focused on things like drinking water, air pollution and earthquakes, state regulators in Pennsylvania are working on another less-discussed, but no less serious, side effect of oil and gas development: forest fragmentation."

July 1, 2015

"The SSSA has created twelve 2-minute educational videos on the importance of soil, available at The group is also encouraging farmers and others to campaign for a Google Doodle on December 5, which is recognized as World Soil Day. Email to make your case." -Ben Potter,

June 22, 2015

This project is based on applying soil restoration recommendations put forward in Chapter 6.7.3 of the Pennsylvania Stormwater Best Management Practices Manual as well as recommendations for ecologically sensible and practical re-vegetation to inactive areas around shale gas pads. Our overarching goal is to design a scientifically sound, replicated experiment that will be monitored through time and can also serve as a demonstration and education site for regulators and gas operators.

March 16, 2015

"Hydropedology is an emerging, interconnected branch of soil science and hydrology that studies interactive pedologic and hydrologic processes and properties in the Earth’s Critical Zone. It emphasizes in situ soils in the landscape, where distinct pedogenic features (e.g., structure, macropores, and horizonation), environmental variables (e.g., climate, landforms, and organisms), and anthropogenic impacts (e.g., land use and management) interact and dictate the fluxes and pathways of energy and mass flow in the landscape. Considerable synergies are expected through bridging pedology with soil physics, hydrology, and other related bio- and geosciences to enhance the integrated understanding of soil–water–landscape–ecosystem relationships. There are two fundamental questions of hydropedology: 1. How does soil architecture (ranging from the soil pore to landscape scales) control the partitioning of hydrologic fluxes (and related biogeochemical and ecological functions) in heterogeneous landscapes? 2. How does landscape hydrology (and associated transport of energy and mass) influence soil genesis, variability, and function across space and time?"

January 27, 2015

The USDA-NRCS Soil Survey is working towards helping to identify Ecological Sites across the United States. An ecological site is a distinctive landscape with a unique vegetative potential. Our new research, led by former Post-doctoral Scholar Alex Ireland, derived a rapid, easily implemented methodology to identify Ecological Sites in forested regions of the Appalachians. See this article in the Soil Science Society of America Journal.

December 16, 2014

How do soils differ in the Northern Appalachians following conventional versus reclaimed shale-gas development? In this new paper published in the Soil Science Society of America Journal we examine physical, chemical and hydrologic changes on gas pads and pipelines that were part of the 1900's and 1970's gas booms, and the current shale-gas boom. Our results show that conventional sites do not exhibit significant differences in dynamic soil properties between disturbed and undisturbed soils while shale-gas sites show significantly higher (potentially root limiting) bulk density and lower SOC and N pools on reclaimed, disturbed soils.

April 15, 2014

"The idea of using green infrastructure, from rain gardens and rain buckets to porous streets and simple sidewalk grass and plantings, is among the few environmental solutions that exists virtually unopposed. Big, old cities in the U.S. tend to have outdated sewer systems that overflow when it rains a lot, thanks to the built environment’s inability to slow all that water down."

March 28, 2014

W.D. Shuster, S. Dadio, P. Drohan, R. Losco, J. Shaffer. Increased residential demolitions have made vacant lots a ubiquitous feature of the contemporary urban landscape. Vacant lots may provide ecosystem services such as stormwater runoff capture, but the extent of these functions will be regulated by soil hydrology. We evaluated soil physical and hydrologic characteristics at each of low- (backyard, fenceline) and high-disturbance (within the demolition footprint) positions in 52 vacant lots in Cleveland, OH, which were the result of different eras of demolition process and quality (i.e., pre-1996, post-1996). Penetrometer refusal averaged 56% (range: 15–100%) and was attributed to high concentration of remnant buried debris in anthropogenic backfill soils. Both disturbance level and demolition type significantly regulated infiltration rate to an average of 1.8 cm h−1 (range: 0.03–10.6 cm h−1). Sub-surface saturated hydraulic conductivity (Ksat) averaged higher at 4.0 cm h−1 (range: 0–68.2 cm h−1), was influenced by a significant interaction between both disturbance and demolition factors, and controlled by subsurface soil texture and presence/absence of unconsolidated buried debris. Our observations were synthesized in rainfall-runoff models that simulated average, high- and low-hydrologic functioning, turf-dominated, and a prospective green infrastructure simulation, which indicated that although the typical Cleveland vacant lot is a net producer of runoff volume, straightforward change in demolition policy and process, coupled with reutilization as properly designed and managed infiltration-type green infrastructure may result in a vacant lot that has sufficient capacity for detention of the average annual rainfall volume for a major Midwestern US city.

January 17, 2014

Binh T. Nguyen, Roger T. Koide, Curtis Dell*, Patrick Drohan, Howard Skinner, Paul R. Adler, and Andrea Nord. Amending soils with biochar can sequester C and improve soil properties, such as nutrient holding capacity and water retention. While biochars generally have a long residence time in soil, the turnover of biochar-C can be influenced by both biochar characteristics and soil properties. Biochar can also potentially alter the rate of decomposition of native soil organic matter (SOM). The turnover of switchgrass-derived biochar-C was evaluated in the laboratory using soil from four marginally productive sites in central Pennsylvania. Carbon dioxide emissions from unamended soil, biochar-amended soil, and pure biochar were monitored during 189 day incubations, and data was fit to a two-pool exponential model to estimate the amount and mean residence time (MRT) of C in labile and stable pools. Carbon-13 signatures of emitted CO2 were also determined to estimate the proportion of emitted CO2 derived from the biochar. Mixing biochar with each of the soils reduced the apparent MRT of C in both labile and stable pools, but the magnitude of change depended on the soil. Overall the biochar was largely stable in each soil, with only 1.1 to 2.1 % of the added biochar-C emitted during incubation. There was no measurable effect of biochar amendment on turnover of native SOM in any of the soils. Therefore, we conclude that amendment of our soils with switchgrass-derived biochar can effectively increase net C sequestration.

December 20, 2013

Hartemink, Alfred E., Megan R. Balks, Zueng-Sang Chen, Patrick Drohan, Damien J. Field, Pavel Krasilnikov, David J. Lowe et al. The fundamental purposes of teaching are to impart knowledge, insight, and inspiration. Around the world, university teaching principles are changing as students also gain knowledge and inspiration in ways other than in the class room. Likewise, the soil science discipline is evolving as there is a new set of tools and techniques available by which we investigate soils, and the foci are shifting toward other disciplines and changing research questions. In many universities, the teaching of undergraduate soil science increasingly takes place to non-soil science majors. All these forces require some thinking about how we teach the subject and here we present some of our experiences and ideas of teaching soil science in different parts of the world. Some 15 examples are presented from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand, Russia, Taiwan, The Netherlands, and the USA. As the research is widening so is our teaching. The examples are diverse and, despite cultural and personal differences, they show several trends. The cases represent vibrant and creative ways to teach soils, and the initial focus is to create a sense of wonder about the soil and its utilitarian and scientific value.

December 9, 2013

PhD student Lauren Vitko took 1st place in the Pedology Division graduate student poster contest. Lauren presented her thesis research, Soil and Topographic Influences On Spatiotemporal Patterns of Saturated Zones, at the SSSA/ASA/CSSA annual meeting in Tampa, FL.

December 4, 2013

"Dig It" was a 4,000-square foot exhibition on soil in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History from July 18, 2008 through Jan. 10, 2010. It is now traveling around the country.

December 4, 2013

Master's student Cody Fink successfully defended his thesis entitled: Dynamic soil property change in response to natural gas development in Pennsylvania.

August 28, 2013

During summer of 2013 a lot happened in the Penn State Soil Characterization Lab. We visited 5 different states for research projects, sampled a couple of hundred soils, and managed to take a break for a swim in the Atlantic ocean.