Knowledge about the spatial distribution of active-layer (AL) soil thickness is indispensable for ecological modeling, precision agriculture, and land resource management. However, it is difficult to obtain the details on AL soil thickness by using conventional soil survey method. In this research, the objective is to investigate the possibility and accuracy of mapping the spatial distribution of AL soil thickness through random forest (RF) model by using terrain variables at a small watershed scale. A total of 1113 soil samples collected from the slope fields were randomly divided into calibration (770 soil samples) and validation (343 soil samples) sets. Seven terrain variables including elevation, aspect, relative slope position, valley depth, flow path length, slope height, and topographic wetness index were derived from a digital elevation map (30 m). The RF model was compared with multiple linear regression (MLR), geographically weighted regression (GWR) and support vector machines (SVM) approaches based on the validation set. Model performance was evaluated by precision criteria of mean error (ME), mean absolute error (MAE), root mean square error (RMSE), and coefficient of determination (R2). Comparative results showed that RF outperformed MLR, GWR and SVM models. The RF gave better values of ME (0.39 cm), MAE (7.09 cm), and RMSE (10.85 cm) and higher R2 (62%). The sensitivity analysis demonstrated that the DEM had less uncertainty than the AL soil thickness. The outcome of the RF model indicated that elevation, flow path length and valley depth were the most important factors affecting the AL soil thickness variability across the watershed. These results demonstrated the RF model is a promising method for predicting spatial distribution of AL soil thickness using terrain parameters. © 2017 Li et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Li, A., Tan, X., Wu, W., Liu, H., & Zhu, J. (2017). Predicting active-layer soil thickness using topographic variables at a small watershed scale. PLoS ONE, 12(9). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0183742