Soil Atlas of the Northern Circumpolar Region

Project Introduction

The SOIL Action (22004) of the Joint Research Centre’s Land Management and Natural Hazards Unit (H07) has just completed a comprehensive three year collaborative project to collate information on soil in northern latitudes.

The 144 pages atlas is the result of a three-year collaborative project with partners from northern EU countries, as well as Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, the USA and Russia and gives a detailed overview of circumpolar soil resources relevant also to agriculture, forest management, water management, land use planning, infrastructure and housing and energy transport networks. In a clear style, the atlas describes the origin and major characteristics of the different soil types that can be found in this environment. The atlas is a visually stunning publication using striking maps, informative texts and dramatic photographs to explain and illustrate the great diversity of soils in northern landscapes.

The atlas aims to :

  • support EU policies such as the ERA, the Soil Thematic Strategy, the Northern Dimension and Climate Change;
  • promote the soil related activities and global dimension of the JRC,
  • bring circumpolar soils into policy focus by identifying needs for policy and research strategies aimed at soil protection and mitigating climate change with specific emphasis on soils.

The Editorial Board

The Editorial Board of the Atlas comprised:

  • Arwyn Jones, Soil Action, JRC (Lead Editor)
  • Luca Montanarella, Soil Action Leader, JRC
  • Vladimir Stolbovoy, Institute of Geography, Russian Academy of Sciences (ex-JRC VS)
  • Prof. Gabriele Broll, University of Osnabruck (D)
  • Charles Tarnocai, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada
  • Otto Spaargaren, ISRIC – World Soils Data (NL)
  • Prof. Chien-Lu Ping, University of Alaska Fairbanks (USA)

Over 24 scientists contributed significant articles to the atlas with a further 50 providing additional graphical materials and photographs.

Proposal for Nothern Circumpolar Soil Atlas

Key Message 1: One of the resulting outputs is the first ever Soils Atlas of the Northern Circumpolar Region – encompassing all land surfaces in Eurasia and North America above the latitude of 50o N.

Key Message 2: The main goal of the atlas is to inform the general public, policy makers, land managers, teachers and the general scientific community of the unique characteristics of northern soil and raise awareness of its environmental importance and global significance.

Key Message 3: Unbeknown to most people, soil in the northern latitudes store up to half of the Earth’s soil carbon; about twice the amount of carbon stored in the atmosphere. The importance of this carbon sink is immeasurable. Permanently frozen ground keeps this organic carbon locked in the soil and, together with extensive peatlands, ensures that northern circumpolar soils are a significant carbon sink .

Key Message 4: While most people are aware of the reduction in Arctic sea ice extent, the majority are unaware of the impact of global warming on soil. Increased temperatures in the Arctic and boreal regions are causing permafrost-affected areas to thaw thus ensuring that the huge mass of poorly decomposed organic matter that is presently locked in the frozen soil will start to decompose. As a result of this decay, significant quantities of greenhouse gases (e.g. CO2, CH4, N2O) could be released into the atmosphere. These emissions can initiate a snow-ball effect that will increase greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at an accelerating rate and greatly intensify the processes driving climate change.

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, launched the Atlas on 4th May 2010 in Brussels at the European Parliament at the inauguration of an exhibition on the work of the Commission's Joint Research Centre .

Press release: New atlas underlines significant role of northern soils in climate change

In a clear style, the atlas describes the origin and major characteristics of the different soil types that can be found in this environment. The atlas discusses the possible impacts of climate change on permafrost-affected soils and explains the critical role that they play in the global climate and global carbon cycles. 6. For the first time ever, the distribution of soil types for the entire northern circumpolar region can be visualised in a comprehensible manner by the lay-person. Information on the major soil types is presented in detail on twenty six map plates (the atlas has an A3 page size giving a dramatic A2 spread for maps). In a novel exercise, the World Reference Base for Soil Resources has been used as a framework for correlating knowledge from diverse national soil classification systems into a single, coherent, inter-continental product.

Undertaken under the auspices of the International Polar Year Programme (IPY), the atlas positively showcases collaboration between the JRC and internationally renowned soil scientists from northern countries within the EU, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, the USA and Russia. In addition to the preface from Commissioner Potocnik, the atlas is supported by the Director-General of the JRC, Prof. Jerry Brown (Woods Hole Inst.), the outgoing President of the International Permafrost Association, and Prof. Vladimir Kotlyakov, Head of the Russian Arctic Programme of the Russian Academy of Science and IPY Joint Committee Member.

The atlas illustrates the diversity of soil in the permafrost and seasonally frozen environments through a series of maps supported by explanatory and easily readable texts, high quality photographs and descriptive graphics. The atlas presents the reader with a series of maps that show the variation of soil properties in a circumpolar context and from a polar perspective, allowing comparisons to be made across international boundaries. In addition, larger scale maps show the distribution of major soil types by regions with descriptions of the major issues. The maps have been produced through the elaboration of harmonized soil databases for the northern circumpolar areas by Geographic Information Systems software (GIS).Through supporting texts, the atlas describes the major soil types found in northern latitudes, together with their principal properties and characteristics, the main soil forming processes, the importance of soil classification and the use of soil.

Special attention is given to impact of cold climates on soil characteristics and on the relationship between climate change and soils properties (e.g. carbon dynamics, carbon sinks and sources, methane emission). In addition, the atlas illustrates how soil can be used as indicators of past climate change and present examples local and regional perspectives of the importance and functions of soil for society as a whole and particularly for indigenous northern cultures.

How to get a Copy of the Atlas?

Free download of pdf version of the atlas (280 MB) .

A physical copy of the Atlas can be obtained from the EU Bookshop. The Atlas costs 25 Euro.

  • Soil Atlas of the Northern Circumpolar Region
  • Catalogue Number: LB-NA-23499-EN-C
  • ISBN: 978-92-79-09770-6, ISSN: 1018-5593
  • Price: Euro 25.00


This atlas builds on the considerable knowledge on the circumpolar region that has been amassed through the efforts of many individuals and organisations. Without this considerable effort, the production of this atlas would not have been possible. The atlas demonstrates fruitful collaboration between the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy and numerous, soil science experts, institutions and universities. In particular, the European Soil Bureau Network, scientists of the International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS)/International Permafrost Association (IPA) Cryosol Working Group, the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Geography, Institute of Geocryology, Yakutia, Institute of Biological Resources of the North- Polar Ural, Dokuchaev Soil Science Institute of Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, University of Osnabrück, ISRIC – World Soil Information and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. All are thanked for sharing their knowledge.

The initiative to produce this atlas was supported by Jerry Brown, the President of the International Permafrost Association (IPA) and Vladimir Kotlyakov, Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The Editors wish to recognise the valuable contributions of the proof readers, Dr. Robert Jones, Cranfield University National Soil Resources Institute (UK) in tightening up the readability and grammar of the atlas.

Contact Points

Feedback and Information: Arwyn Jones


Get the Northern Circumpolar Region Map (Resolution: 200dpi, Size: 7MB)




Get the WRB-level1 GIS soil data of the map above (shapefile; registration needed after which you will be given access). 


Supporting Documents

white material

Figure 1: Ice is a key component of soil in the northern circumpolar region. The white material in the centre of the photograph is ice that has grown within the soil to form a wedge that displaces the surrounding material. The dark surface layer is peat, a soil consisting primarily of the partly-decomposed remains of vegetation. (Photo Credit: Charles Tarnocai)
  warming of the climate

Figure 2: Any warming of the climate will cause a melting of the permafrost making the organic carbon available for decomposition with a resulting intensification of CO2 and CH4 emissions. The above figure illustrates that changes in peatlands depend on their initial frozen or unfrozen status. The warming of frozen peatland will lead to an intensification of CO2 and CH4 emissions and cause possible growth of peat. The unfrozen peatlands might intensify CO2 release or show peat growth. The increase of CH4 emission is unforeseen from unfrozen peatlands. This example shows that the processes and climate warming projected on different types of soil will initiate a variety of soil evolutions and environmental consequences.
Carbon Stock

Figure 3: The distribution of global organic carbon stocks in the major terrestrial regions. The figure clearly shows that the soil captures more than twice the organic carbon captured by the vegetation except for the tropical forest, where slightly more organic carbon is contained in the vegetation. A large portion of the organic carbon stocks for the boreal forest and permafrost regions are contained in peatlands.

Stock of Organic carbon

Figure 4: The stock of soil organic carbon in permafrost zones of the nothern Circumpolar Region



Sample spreads and map pages

Image 1 Image 2
Image 3



  •     Soil Atlas of the Northern Circumpolar Region, 1
  •     Publishing Details, 2
  •     Principal Editors, Authors and Acknowledgements, 3
  •     Contents, 4
  •     Preface and Foreward, 7
  •     Introduction, 8
  •     Scope of the Atlas, 9
  •     Role and Importance of Soil, 10
  •     International Polar Year, 12
  •     European Union Research and the Northern Latitudes, 13
  •     The Northern Environment, 14
  •     Overview, 15
  •     Sea Ice and Topography, 16
  •     Climate, 17
  •     Human Influence , 19
  •     Permafrost, 20
  •     Land-Ocean Interaction, 21
  •     Soils in Northern Latitudes, 22
  •     What is Soil?, 23
  •     Soils in Cold Climates, 24
  •     Soil Forming Processes, 25
  •     Patterned Ground, 31
  •     Mass Movement, 33
  •     Thawing of Ground Ice, 34
  •     Soil Organisms in the Polar Regions, 35
  •     Soil Classification, 36
  •     Soil Classification: Grouping Soils Together, 37
  •     World Reference, 38
  •     Soil Taxonomy, 40
  •     Canadian Soil Classification, 41
  •     Russian Soil Classification, 42
  •     Comparing Soil Classifications, 43
  •     Soil Mapping in the North, 44
  •     Major Soil Types of the Northern Circumpolar Region , 46
  •     Soil Maps , 52
  •     WRB Reference Soil Groups, 54
  •     Index to Map Sheets, 57
  •     Overview of the Northern Circumpolar Region, 58
  •     Regional Maps, 60
  •     Cold Soils from Around the World, 116
  •     Geographic Information Systems, 117
  •     Northern Soils: A Global Perspective, 118
  •     Carbon Cycle, 119
  •     Climate Change, 124
  •     Northern Soils: A Local Perspective , 126
  •     Alaska, 127
  •     Canada , 128
  •     Greenland, 130
  •     Fennoscandia, 132
  •     Central Siberia, 134
  •     Iceland, 136
  •     Construction in the Permafrost Zone, 137
  •     Conclusions, 138
  •     Glossary, 141
  •     Contacts and Bibliography, 142
  •     JRC Soil Atlas Series, 143
  •     The Joint Research Centre, 144