University of Minnesota
College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences
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Department of Soil, Water, and Climate

Department History

 

A BRIEF HISTORY

Soil science at the University of Minnesota has both an illustrious past and significant prospects for contributing to the future. Established in 1913 as the Division of Soils, its name was changed in 1954 to the Department of Soils. In 1956, it was renamed the Department of Soil Science. Then, in 1995, the name was again changed by the University to the Department of Soil, Water, and Climate. The current name reflects the expertise and areas where the department faculty and students can and are expected to make major contributions.

The department has occupied several buildings on campus and currently has offices and laboratories in the Soil Science Building and in Borlaug Hall (adjoining buildings on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota). The department provides undergraduate and graduate teaching, conducts extensive research, and has significant extension outreach responsibilities. Because the soils, climate, and water resources vary greatly over the state, the department’s activities are similarly widespread.

The department’s early emphasis was on soil inventory (soil survey and characterization) and an assessment of nutrient needs of agricultural crops. During and following World War II, its involvements shifted somewhat to nutrient management and cropping systems; the intense need for food during the conflict required all-out production research. After the war, the chemical facilities and technology developed for the war effort were shifted to fertilizer production. The shift toward the use of chemical inputs, resulting from much lower fertilizer prices, created a need for research on efficient use of fertilizers. The department responded rapidly with soil fertility studies in all parts of the state.

In the early 1970s, it was recognized that a more holistic approach was needed in the management of natural resources. The expertise in soil, water, and climate within the department was called upon to contribute to a wide array of problems in addition to agriculture. To meet these challenges, the department expanded its programs in all areas of responsibility – teaching, research, and extension.

The department has a long tradition of strength in soil survey and interpretation. Modern soil surveys are available for all but three counties, and most of the surveys have been computerized. Within the last two decades, the department has realized that information over the landscape would be needed to go along with the soil surveys. Using computer-guided technologies, chemical or other treatments can be applied “on-the-go” as machines travel over the landscape or fields. This technology will be increasingly used in the future. The department has been a world leader in this research.

Climatology has been a relative newcomer to the department but has contributed to research and teaching in collaboration with several other departments of the University. Recent concerns about global climate change and El Nino, and violent weather patterns in Minnesota have also demonstrated the need for additional faculty for this area of the department. In 1985, the department recognized climatology as an area of specialization and now has the strongest unit of climatology within the University.

Between 1913 and 2012, the department granted 315 masters degrees and 220 doctoral degrees. To reflect the breadth of our research faculty, the name of our graduate degree program was changed from Soil Science to Land and Atmospheric Science in 2008. An accurate count of B.S. majors is not available as our undergraduate degree is now part of the Environmental Science, Policy and Management major, which is administered by several departments. Department faculty have been prominent in national and international scientific organizations and within government agencies. Faculty have also been elected to prestigious leadership positions in scientific organizations and have received numerous awards.

Improved natural resource management, enhanced agricultural production efficiency, and interactions of these factors with climate change have been issues amply voiced by the public and are topics of continued scientific investigation. The Soil, Water, and Climate department will continue to contribute to these most important areas in the future.