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Mapping the spatial distribution of soil taxonomic classes is important for informing soil use and management decisions. Digital soil mapping (DSM) can quantitatively predict the spatial distribution of soil taxonomic classes. Key components of DSM are the method and the set of environmental covariates used to predict soil classes. Machine learning is a general term for a broad set of statistical modeling techniques. Many different machine learning models have been applied in the literature and there are different approaches for selecting covariates for DSM. However, there is little guidance as to which, if any, machine learning model and covariate set might be optimal for predicting soil classes across different landscapes.

Our objective was to compare multiple machine learning models and covariate sets for predicting soil taxonomic classes at three geographically distinct areas in the semi-arid western United States of America (southern New Mexico, southwestern Utah, and northeastern Wyoming). All three areas were the focus of digital soil mapping studies. Sampling sites at each study area were selected using conditioned Latin hypercube sampling (cLHS). We compared models that had been used in other DSM studies, including clustering algorithms, discriminant analysis, multinomial logistic regression, neural networks, tree based methods, and support vector machine classifiers. Tested machine learning models were divided into three groups based on model complexity: simple, moderate, and complex. We also compared environmental covariates derived from digital elevation models and Landsat imagery that were divided into three different sets: 1) covariates selected a priori by soil scientists familiar with each area and used as input into cLHS, 2) the covariates in set 1 plus 113 additional covariates, and 3) covariates selected using recursive feature elimination.

Overall, complex models were consistently more accurate than simple or moderately complex models.Random forests (RF) using covariates selected via recursive feature elimination was consistently most accurate, or was among the most accurate, classifiers sets within each study area. We recommend that for soil taxonomic class prediction, complex models and covariates selected by recursive feature elimination be used.

Overall classification accuracy in each study area was largely dependent upon the number of soil taxonomic classes and the frequency distribution of pedon observations between taxonomic classes. 43 Individual subgroup class accuracy was generally dependent upon the number of soil pedon 44 observations in each taxonomic class. The number of soil classes is related to the inherent variability of a given area. The imbalance of soil pedon observations between classes is likely related to cLHS. Imbalanced frequency distributions of soil pedon observations between classes must be addressed to improve model accuracy. Solutions include increasing the number of soil pedon observations in classes with few observations or decreasing the number of classes. Spatial predictions using the most accurate models generally agree with expected soil-landscape relationships. Spatial prediction uncertainty was lowest in areas of relatively low relief for each study area.