Spatial disaggregation of complex soil map units: A decision-tree based approach in Bavarian forest soils

Tim Häring, Elke Dietz, Sebastian Osenstetter, Thomas Koschitzki, Boris Schröder

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

93 Scopus citations


Detailed knowledge on the spatial distribution of soils is crucial for environmental monitoring, management, and modeling. However soil maps with a finite number of discrete soil map units are often the only available information about soils. Depending on the map scale or the detailing of the map legend this information could be too imprecise. We present a method for the spatial disaggregation of map units, namely the refinement of complex soil map units in which two or more soil types are aggregated. Our aim is to draw new boundaries inside the map polygons to represent a single soil type and no longer a mixture of several soil types. The basic idea for our method is the functional relationship between soil types and topographic position as formulated in the concept of the catena. We use a comprehensive soil profile database and topographic attributes derived from a 10. m digital elevation model as input data for the classification of soil types with random forest models. We grouped all complex map units which have the same combination of soil types. Each group of map units is modeled separately. For prediction of the soil types we stratified the soil map into these groups and apply a specific random forest model only to the associated map units. In order to get reliable results we define a threshold for the predicted probabilities at 0.7 to assign a specific soil type. In areas where the probability is below 0.7 for every possible soil type we assign a new class "indifferent" because the model only makes unspecific classification there. Our results show a significant spatial refinement of the original soil polygons. Validation of our predictions was estimated on 1812 independent soil profiles which were collected subsequent to prediction in the field. Field validation gave an overall accuracy of 70%. Map units, in which shallow soils were grouped together with deep soils could be separated best. Also histosols could be predicted successful. Highest error rate were found in map units, in which Gleysoils were grouped together with deep soils or Anthrosols. To check for validity of our results we open the black box random forest model by calculating the variable importance for each predictor variable and plotting response surfaces. We found good confirmations of our hypotheses, that topography has a significant influence on the spatial arrangement of soil types and that these relationships can be used for disaggregation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)37-47
Number of pages11
StatePublished - Sep 2012


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