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Soil is the mixture of minerals, organic matter, gases, liquids, and the myriad of organisms that together support plant life. It is a natural body that exists as part of the pedosphere and which performs four important functions: it is a medium for plant growth; it is a means of water storage, supply and purification; it is a modifier of the atmosphere; and it is a habitat for organisms that take part in decomposition of organic matter and the creation of a habitat for new organisms.
Soil is considered to be the "skin of the earth" with interfaces between the lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere. Soil consists of a solid phase (minerals and organic matter) as well as a porous phase that holds gases and water. Accordingly, soils are often treated as a three-state system.
Soil is the end product of the influence of the climate, relief (elevation, orientation, and slope of terrain), biotic activities (organisms), and parent materials (original minerals) interacting over time. Soil continually undergoes development by way of numerous physical, chemical and biological processes, which include weathering with associated erosion.
Most soils have a density between 1 and 2 g/cm3. Little of the soil of planet Earth is older than the Pleistocene and none is older than the Cenozoic, although fossilized soils are preserved from as far back as the Archean.
Soil science has two main branches of study: Edaphology and Pedology. Pedology is focused on the formation, description (morphology), and classification of soils in their natural environment, whereas edaphology is concerned with the influence of soils on organisms. In engineering terms, soil is referred to as regolith, or loose rock material that lies above the 'solid geology'. Soil is commonly referred to as "earth" or "dirt"; technically, the term "dirt" should be restricted to displaced soil.
As soil resources serve as a basis for food security, the international community advocates for its sustainable and responsible use through different types of Soil Governance.
Soil is a major component of the Earth's ecosystem. From ozone depletion and global warming to rain forest destruction and water pollution, the world's ecosystems are impacted in far-reaching ways by the processes carried out in the soil. Soil is the largest surficial global carbon reservoir on Earth, and it is potentially one of the most reactive to human disturbance and climate change. As the planet warms, soils will add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere due to its increased biological activity at higher temperatures. Thus, soil carbon losses likely have a large positive feedback response to global warming.
Soil acts as an engineering medium, a habitat for soil organisms, a recycling system for nutrients and organic wastes, a regulator of water quality, a modifier of atmospheric composition, and a medium for plant growth. Since soil has a tremendous range of available niches and habitats, it contains most of the earth's genetic diversity. A gram of soil can contain billions of organisms, belonging to thousands of species. Soil has a mean prokaryotic density of roughly 1013 organisms per cubic meter, whereas the ocean has a mean prokaryotic density of roughly 108 organisms per cubic meter. The carbon content stored in soil is eventually returned to the atmosphere through the process of respiration, which is carried out by heterotrophic organisms that feed upon the carbonaceous material in the soil. Since plant roots need oxygen, ventilation is an important characteristic of soil. This ventilation can be accomplished via networks of soil pores, which also absorb and hold rainwater making it readily available for plant uptake. Since plants require a nearly continuous supply of water, but most regions receive sporadic rainfall, the water-holding capacity of soils is vital for plant survival.
Soils can effectively remove impurities, kill disease agents, and degrade contaminants. Typically, soils maintain a net absorption of oxygen and methane, and undergo a net release of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. Soils offer plants physical support, air, water, temperature moderation, nutrients, and protection from toxins. Soils provide readily available nutrients to plants and animals by converting dead organic matter into various nutrient forms.
Soils supply plants with mineral nutrients held in place by the clay and humus content of the soil. For optimum plant growth, the generalized content of soil components by volume should be roughly 50% solids (45% mineral and 5% organic matter), and 50% voids of which half is occupied by water and half by gas. The percent soil mineral and organic content is typically treated as a constant, while the percent soil water and gas content is considered highly variable whereby a rise in one is simultaneously balanced by a reduction in the other. The pore space allows for the infiltration and movement of air and water, both of which are critical for life in soil. Compaction, a common problem with soils, reduces this space, preventing air and water from reaching the plant roots and soil organisms.
Given sufficient time, an undifferientated soil will evolve a soil profile which consists of two or more layers, referred to as soil horizons, that differ in one or more properties such as in their texture, structure, density, porosity, consistency, temperature, color, and reactivity. The horizons differ greatly in thickness and generally lack sharp boundaries. Soil profile development is dependent on the processes that form soils from their parent materials, the type of parent material, and the factors that control soil formation. The biological influences on soil properties are strongest near the surface, while the geochemical influences on soil properties increase with depth. Mature soil profiles in temperate climate regions typically include three basic master horizons: A, B and C. The solum normally includes the A and B horizons. The living component of the soil is largely confined to the solum. In the more hot, humid, climate of the tropics, a soil may have only a single horizon.
The soil texture is determined by the relative proportions of sand, silt, and clay in the soil. The addition of organic matter, water, gases and time causes the soil of a certain texture to develop into a larger soil structure called an aggregate. At that point a soil can be said to be developed, and can be described further in terms of color, porosity, consistency, reaction etc.
Of all the factors influencing the evolution of soil, water is the most powerful due to its involvement in the solution, erosion, transportation, and deposition of the materials of which a soil is composed. The mixture of water and dissolved and suspended materials is called the soil solution. Since soil water is never pure water, but contains hundreds of dissolved organic and inorganic substances, it may be more accurately called the soil solution. Water is central to the solution, precipitation and leaching of minerals from the soil profile. Finally, water affects the type of vegetation that grows in a soil, which in turn affects the development of the soil profile.
The most influential factor in stabilizing soil fertility are the soil colloidal particles, clay and humus, which behave as repositories of nutrients and moisture and so act to buffer the variations of soil solution ions and moisture. The contribution of soil colloids to soil nutrition are out of proportion to their part of the soil. Colloids act to store nutrients that might otherwise be leached from the soil or to release those ions in response to changes of soil pH, and so, to make them available to plants.
The greatest influence on plant nutrient availability is soil pH, which is a measure of the hydrogen ion (acid-forming) soil reactivity, and is in turn a function of the soil materials, precipitation level, and plant root behavior. Soil pH strongly affects the availability of nutrients.
Most nutrients, with the exception of nitrogen, originate from minerals. Some nitrogen originates from rain, but most of the nitrogen available in soils is the result of nitrogen fixation by bacteria. The action of microbes on organic matter and minerals may be to free nutrients for use, sequester them, or cause their loss from the soil by their volatilisation to gases or their leaching from the soil. The nutrients may be stored on soil colloids, and live or dead organic matter, but they may not be accessible to plants due to extremes of pH.
The organic material of the soil has a powerful effect on its development, fertility, and available moisture. Following water and soil colloids, organic material is next in importance to soil's formation and fertility.
The history of the study of soil is intimately tied to our urgent need to provide food for ourselves and forage for our animals. Throughout history, civilizations have prospered or declined as a function of the availability and productivity of their soils.
The Greek historian Xenophon (450–355 B.C.) is credited with being the first to expound upon the merits of green-manuring crops: "But then whatever weeds are upon the ground, being turned into earth, enrich the soil as much as dung."
Columella’s "Husbandry," circa 60 A.D., advocated the use of lime and that clover and alfalfa (green manure) should be turned under, and was used by 15 generations (450 years) under the Roman Empire until its collapse. From the fall of Rome to the French Revolution, knowledge of soil and agriculture was passed on from parent to child and as a result, crop yields were low. During the European Dark Ages, Yahya Ibn_al-'Awwam’s handbook, with its emphasis on irrigation, guided the people of North Africa, Spain and the Middle East; a translation of this work was finally carried to the southwest of the United States.
Experiments into what made plants grow first led to the idea that the ash left behind when plant matter was burned was the essential element but overlooked the role of nitrogen, which is not left on the ground after combustion. In about 1635, the Flemish chemist Jan Baptist van Helmont thought he had proved water to be the essential element from his famous five years' experiment with a willow tree grown with only the addition of rainwater. His conclusion came from the fact that the increase in the plant's weight had apparently been produced only by the addition of water, with no reduction in the soil's weight. John Woodward (d. 1728) experimented with various types of water ranging from clean to muddy and found muddy water the best, and so he concluded that earthy matter was the essential element. Others concluded it was humus in the soil that passed some essence to the growing plant. Still others held that the vital growth principal was something passed from dead plants or animals to the new plants. At the start of the 18th century, Jethro Tull demonstrated that it was beneficial to cultivate (stir) the soil, but his opinion that the stirring made the fine parts of soil available for plant absorption was erroneous.
As chemistry developed, it was applied to the investigation of soil fertility. The French chemist Antoine Lavoisier showed in about 1778 that plants and animals must “combust” oxygen internally to live and was able to deduce that most of the 165-pound weight of van Helmont’s willow tree derived from air. It was the French agriculturalist Jean-Baptiste Boussingault who by means of experimentation obtained evidence showing that the main sources of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen for plants were the air and water. Justus von Liebig in his book Organic Chemistry in its Applications to Agriculture and Physiology (published 1840), asserted that the chemicals in plants must have come from the soil and air and that to maintain soil fertility, the used minerals must be replaced. Liebig nevertheless believed the nitrogen was supplied from the air. The enrichment of soil with guano by the Incas was rediscovered in 1802, by Alexander von Humboldt. This led to its mining and that of Chilean nitrate and to its application to soil in the United States and Europe after 1840.
The work of Liebig was a revolution for agriculture, and so other investigators started experimentation based on it. In England John Bennet Lawes and Joseph Henry Gilbert worked in the Rothamsted Experimental Station, founded by the former, and discovered that plants took nitrogen from the soil, and that salts needed to be in an available state to be absorbed by plants. Their investigations also produced the "superphosphate", consisting in the acid treatment of phosphate rock. This led to the invention and use of salts of potassium (K) and nitrogen (N) as fertilizers. Ammonia generated by the production of coke was recovered and used as fertiliser. Finally, the chemical basis of nutrients delivered to the soil in manure was understood and in the mid-19th century chemical fertilisers were applied. However, the dynamic interaction of soil and its life forms awaited discovery.
In 1856 J. T. Way discovered that ammonia contained in fertilisers was transformed into nitrates, and twenty years later R. W. Warington proved that this transformation was done by living organisms. In 1890 Sergei Winogradsky announced he had found the bacteria responsible for this transformation.
It was known that certain legumes could take up nitrogen from the air and fix it to the soil but it took the development of bacteriology towards the end of the 19th century to lead to an understanding of the role played in nitrogen fixation by bacteria. The symbiosis of bacteria and leguminous roots, and the fixation of nitrogen by the bacteria, were simultaneously discovered by German agronomist Hermann Hellriegel and Dutch microbiologist Martinus Beijerinck.
The scientists who studied the soil in connection with agricultural practices had considered it mainly as a static substrate. However, soil is the result of evolution from more ancient geological materials. After studies of the improvement of the soil commenced, others began to study soil genesis and as a result also soil types and classifications.
In 1860, in Mississippi, Eugene W. Hilgard studied the relationship among rock material, climate, and vegetation, and the type of soils that were developed. He realised that the soils were dynamic, and considered soil types classification. Unfortunately his work was not continued. At the same time Vasily Dokuchaev (about 1870) was leading a team of soil scientists in Russia who conducted an extensive survey of soils, finding that similar basic rocks, climate and vegetation types lead to similar soil layering and types, and established the concepts for soil classifications. Due to the language barriers, the work of this team was not communicated to Western Europe until 1914 by a publication in German by K. D. Glinka, a member of the Russian team.
Curtis F. Marbut was influenced by the work of the Russian team, translated Glinka's publication into English, and as he was placed in charge of the U. S. National Cooperative Soil Survey, applied it to a national soil classification system.
Soil formation, or pedogenesis, is the combined effect of physical, chemical, biological and anthropogenic processes working on soil parent material. Soil is said to be formed when organic matter has accumulated and colloids are washed downward, leaving deposits of clay, humus, iron oxide, carbonate, and gypsum, producing a distinct layer called the B horizon. (This is a somewhat arbitrary definition as mixtures of sand, silt, clay and humus will support biological and agricultural activity before that time.) These constituents are moved from one level to another by water and animal activity. As a result, layers (horizons) form in the soil profile. The alteration and movement of materials within a soil causes the formation of distinctive soil horizons.
How soil formation proceeds is influenced by at least five classic factors that are intertwined in the evolution of a soil. They are: parent material, climate, topography (relief), organisms, and time. When reordered to climate, relief, organisms, parent material, and time, they form the acronym CROPT.
An example of the development of a soil would begin with the weathering of lava flow bedrock, which would produce the purely mineral-based parent material from which the soil texture forms. Soil development would proceed most rapidly from bare rock of recent flows in a warm climate, under heavy and frequent rainfall. Under such conditions, plants become established very quickly on basaltic lava, even though there is very little organic material. The plants are supported by the porous rock as it is filled with nutrient-bearing water that carries dissolved minerals from the rocks and guano. Crevasses and pockets, local topography of the rocks, would hold fine materials and harbour plant roots. The developing plant roots are associated with mycorrhizal fungi that assist in breaking up the porous lava, and by these means organic matter and a finer mineral soil accumulate with time.
The mineral material from which a soil forms is called parent material. Rock, whether its origin is igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic, is the source of all soil mineral materials and the origin of all plant nutrients with the exceptions of nitrogen, hydrogen and carbon. As the parent material is chemically and physically weathered, transported, deposited and precipitated, it is transformed into a soil.
Typical soil parent mineral materials are:
The principal climatic variables influencing soil formation are effective precipitation (i.e., precipitation minus evapotranspiration) and temperature, both of which affect the rates of chemical, physical, and biological processes. The temperature and moisture both influence the organic matter content of soil through their effects on the balance between plant growth and microbial decomposition. Climate is the dominant factor in soil formation, and soils show the distinctive characteristics of the climate zones in which they form. For every 10 °C rise in temperature, the rates of biochemical reactions more than double. Mineral precipitation and temperature are the primary climatic influences on soil formation. If warm temperatures and abundant water are present in the profile at the same time, the processes of weathering, leaching, and plant growth will be maximized. Humid climates favor the growth of trees. In contrast, grasses are the dominant native vegetation in subhumid and semiarid regions, while shrubs and brush of various kinds dominate in arid areas.
Water is essential for all the major chemical weathering reactions. To be effective in soil formation, water must penetrate the regolith. The seasonal rainfall distribution, evaporative demand, site topography, and soil permeability interact to determine how effectively precipitation can influence soil formation. The greater the depth of water penetration, the greater the depth of weathering of the soil and its development. Surplus water percolating through the soil profile transports soluble and suspended materials from the upper to the lower layers. It may also carry away soluble materials in the drainage waters. Thus, percolating water stimulates weathering reactions and helps differentiate soil horizons. Likewise, a deficiency of water is a major factor in determining the characteristics of soils of dry regions. Soluble salts are not leached from these soils, and in some cases they build up to levels that curtail plant growth. Soil profiles in arid and semi-arid regions are also apt to accumulate carbonates and certain types of expansive clays.
The direct influences of climate include:
Climate directly affects the rate of weathering and leaching. Soil is said to be formed when detectable layers of clays, organic colloids, carbonates, or soluble salts have been moved downward. Wind moves sand and smaller particles, especially in arid regions where there is little plant cover. The type and amount of precipitation influence soil formation by affecting the movement of ions and particles through the soil, and aid in the development of different soil profiles. Soil profiles are more distinct in wet and cool climates, where organic materials may accumulate, than in wet and warm climates, where organic materials are rapidly consumed. The effectiveness of water in weathering parent rock material depends on seasonal and daily temperature fluctuations. Cycles of freezing and thawing constitute an effective mechanism which breaks up rocks and other consolidated materials.
Climate also indirectly influences soil formation through the effects of vegetation cover and biological activity, which modify the rates of chemical reactions in the soil.
The topography, or relief, is characterized by the inclination (slope), elevation, and orientation of the terrain. Topography determines the rate of precipitation or runoff and rate of formation or erosion of the surface soil profile. The topographical setting may either hasten or retard the work of climatic forces.
Steep slopes encourage rapid soil loss by erosion and allow less rainfall to enter the soil before running off and hence, little mineral deposition in lower profiles. In semiarid regions, the lower effective rainfall on steeper slopes also results in less complete vegetative cover, so there is less plant contribution to soil formation. For all of these reasons, steep slopes prevent the formation of soil from getting very far ahead of soil destruction. Therefore, soils on steep terrain tend to have rather shallow, poorly developed profiles in comparison to soils on nearby, more level sites.
In swales and depressions where runoff water tends to concentrate, the regolith is usually more deeply weathered and soil profile development is more advanced. However, in the lowest landscape positions, water may saturate the regolith to such a degree that drainage and aeration are restricted. Here, the weathering of some minerals and the decomposition of organic matter are retarded, while the loss of iron and manganese is accelerated. In such low-lying topography, special profile features characteristic of wetland soils may develop. Depressions allow the accumulation of water, minerals and organic matter and in the extreme, the resulting soils will be saline marshes or peat bogs. Intermediate topography affords the best conditions for the formation of an agriculturally productive soil.
Soil is the most abundant ecosystem on Earth, but the vast majority of organisms in soil are microbes, a great many of which have not been described. There may be a population limit of around one billion cells per gram of soil, but estimates of the number of species vary widely. Estimates range from over a million species per gram of soil to 50,000 per gram of soil. The total number of organisms and species can vary widely according to soil type, location, and depth.
Plants, animals, fungi, bacteria and humans affect soil formation (see soil biomantle and stonelayer). Animals, soil mesofauna and micro-organisms mix soils as they form burrows and pores, allowing moisture and gases to move about. In the same way, plant roots open channels in soils. Plants with deep taproots can penetrate many metres through the different soil layers to bring up nutrients from deeper in the profile. Plants with fibrous roots that spread out near the soil surface have roots that are easily decomposed, adding organic matter. Micro-organisms, including fungi and bacteria, effect chemical exchanges between roots and soil and act as a reserve of nutrients.
Humans impact soil formation by removing vegetation cover with erosion as the result. Their tillage also mixes the different soil layers, restarting the soil formation process as less weathered material is mixed with the more developed upper layers.
Earthworms, ants and termites mix the soil as they burrow, significantly affecting soil formation. Earthworms ingest soil particles and organic residues, enhancing the availability of plant nutrients in the material that passes through their bodies. They aerate and stir the soil and increase the stability of soil aggregates, thereby assuring ready infiltration of water. As they build mounds, some organisms might transport soil materials from one horizon to another.
In general, the mixing activities of animals, sometimes called pedoturbation, tends to undo or counteract the tendency of other soil-forming processes that create distinct horizons. Termites and ants may also retard soil profile development by denuding large areas of soil around their nests, leading to increased loss of soil by erosion. Large animals such as gophers, moles, and prairie dogs bore into the lower soil horizons, bringing materials to the surface. Their tunnels are often open to the surface, encouraging the movement of water and air into the subsurface layers. In localized areas, they enhance mixing of the lower and upper horizons by creating, and later refilling, underground tunnels. Old animal burrows in the lower horizons often become filled with soil material from the overlying A horizon, creating profile features known as crotovinas.
Vegetation impacts soils in numerous ways. It can prevent erosion caused by excessive rain that might result from surface runoff. Plants shade soils, keeping them cooler and slow evaporation of soil moisture, or conversely, by way of transpiration, plants can cause soils to lose moisture. Plants can form new chemicals that can break down minerals and improve the soil structure. The type and amount of vegetation depends on climate, topography, soil characteristics, and biological factors. Soil factors such as density, depth, chemistry, pH, temperature and moisture greatly affect the type of plants that can grow in a given location. Dead plants and fallen leaves and stems begin their decomposition on the surface. There, organisms feed on them and mix the organic material with the upper soil layers; these added organic compounds become part of the soil formation process.
Human activities widely influence soil formation. For example, it is believed that Native Americans regularly set fires to maintain several large areas of prairie grasslands in Indiana and Michigan. In more recent times, human destruction of natural vegetation and subsequent tillage of the soil for crop production has abruptly modified soil formation. Likewise, irrigating an arid region of soil drastically influences the soil-forming factors, as does adding fertilizer and lime to soils of low fertility.
Time is a factor in the interactions of all the above. While a mixture of sand, silt and clay constitute the texture of a soil and the aggregation of those components produces peds, the development of a soil with a distinct B horizon marks the development of a soil. With time, soils will evolve features that depend on the interplay of the prior listed soil-forming factors. It takes decades to several thousand years for a soil to develop a profile. That time period depends strongly on climate, parent material, relief, and biotic activity. For example, recently deposited material from a flood exhibits no soil development as there has not been enough time for the material to form a structure that further defines soil. The original soil surface is buried, and the formation process must begin anew for this deposit. Over time the soil will develop a profile that depends on the intensities of biota and climate. While a soil can achieve relative stability of its properties for extended periods, the soil life cycle ultimately ends in soil conditions that leave it vulnerable to erosion. Despite the inevitability of soil retrogression and degradation, most soil cycles are long.
Soil-forming factors continue to affect soils during their existence, even on “stable” landscapes that are long-enduring, some for millions of years. Materials are deposited on top or are blown or washed from the surface. With additions, removals and alterations, soils are always subject to new conditions. Whether these are slow or rapid changes depends on climate, topography and biological activity.
The physical properties of soils, in order of decreasing importance, are texture, structure, density, porosity, consistency, temperature, colour and resistivity. Soil texture is determined by the relative proportion of the three kinds of soil particles, called soil separates: sand, silt, and clay. At the next larger scale, soil structures called peds are created from the soil separates when iron oxides, carbonates, clay, silica and humus, coat particles and cause them to adhere into larger, relatively stable secondary structures. Soil density, particularly bulk density, is a measure of soil compaction. Soil porosity consists of the void part of the soil volume and is occupied by gases or water. Soil consistency is the ability of soil to stick together. Soil temperature and colour are self-defining. Resistivity refers to the resistance to conduction of electric currents and affects the rate of corrosion of metal and concrete structures. These properties may vary through the depth of a soil profile. Most of these properties determine the aeration of the soil and the ability of water to infiltrate and to be held within the soil.
|Water-holding capacity||Low||Medium to high||High|
|Drainage rate||High||Slow to medium||Very slow|
|Soil organic matter level||Low||Medium to high||High to medium|
|Decomposition of organic matter||Rapid||Medium||Slow|
|Warm-up in spring||Rapid||Moderate||Slow|
|Susceptibility to wind erosion||Moderate (High if fine sand)||High||Low|
|Susceptibility to water erosion||Low (unless fine sand)||High||Low if aggregated, otherwise high|
|Shrink/Swell Potential||Very Low||Low||Moderate to very high|
|Sealing of ponds, dams, and landfills||Poor||Poor||Good|
|Suitability for tillage after rain||Good||Medium||Poor|
|Pollutant leaching potential||High||Medium||Low (unless cracked)|
|Ability to store plant nutrients||Poor||Medium to High||High|
|Resistance to pH change||Low||Medium||High|
The mineral components of soil are sand, silt and clay, and their relative proportions determine a soil's texture. Properties that are influenced by soil texture, include porosity, permeability, infiltration, shrink-swell rate, water-holding capacity, and susceptibility to erosion. In the illustrated USDA textural classification triangle, the only soil in which neither sand, silt nor clay predominates is called "loam". While even pure sand, silt or clay may be considered a soil, from the perspective of food production a loam soil with a small amount of organic material is considered ideal. The mineral constituents of a loam soil might be 40% sand, 40% silt and the balance 20% clay by weight. Soil texture affects soil behaviour, in particular its retention capacity for nutrients and water.
Sand and silt are the products of physical and chemical weathering of the parent rock; clay, on the other hand, is a product of the precipitation of the dissolved parent rock as a secondary mineral. It is the large surface area to volume ratio (specific surface area) of soil particles and the unbalanced ionic charges within those that determine their role in the cation exchange capacity of soil, and hence its fertility. Sand is least active, followed by silt; clay is the most active. Sand's greatest benefit to soil is that it resists compaction and increases a soil's porosity. Silt is mineralogically like sand but with its higher specific surface area it is more chemically active than sand. But it is the clay content of soil, with its very high specific surface area and generally large number of negative charges, that gives a soil its high retention capacity for water and nutrients. Clay soils also resist wind and water erosion better than silty and sandy soils, as the particles bond tightly to each other.
Sand is the most stable of the mineral components of soil; it consists of rock fragments, primarily quartz particles, ranging in size from 2.0 to 0.05 mm (0.0787 to 0.0020 in) in diameter. Silt ranges in size from 0.05 to 0.002 mm (0.002 to 0.00008 in). Clay cannot be resolved by optical microscopes as its particles are 0.002 mm (7.9×10−5 in) or less in diameter. In medium-textured soils, clay is often washed downward through the soil profile and accumulates in the subsoil.
Soil components larger than 2.0 mm (0.079 in) are classed as rock and gravel and are removed before determining the percentages of the remaining components and the texture class of the soil, but are included in the name. For example, a sandy loam soil with 20% gravel would be called gravelly sandy loam.
When the organic component of a soil is substantial, the soil is called organic soil rather than mineral soil. A soil is called organic if:
The clumping of the soil textural components of sand, silt and clay causes aggregates to form and the further association of those aggregates into larger units creates soil structures called peds. The adhesion of the soil textural components by organic substances, iron oxides, carbonates, clays, and silica, and the breakage of those aggregates from expansion-contraction, freezing-thawing, and wetting-drying cycles, shape soil into distinct geometric forms. The peds evolve into units which may have various shapes, sizes and degrees of development. A soil clod, however, is not a ped but rather a mass of soil that results from mechanical disturbance of the soil. Soil structure affects aeration, water movement, conduction of heat, plant root growth and resistance to erosion. Water, in turn, has its strongest effect on soil structure due to its solution and precipitation of minerals and its effect on plant growth.
Soil structure often gives clues to its texture, organic matter content, biological activity, past soil evolution, human use, and the chemical and mineralogical conditions under which the soil formed. While texture is defined by the mineral component of a soil and is an innate property of the soil that does not change with agricultural activities, soil structure can be improved or destroyed by the choice and timing of farming practices.
Soil Structural Classes:
At the largest scale, the forces that shape a soil's structure result from swelling and shrinkage that initially tend to act horizontally, causing vertically oriented prismatic peds. Clayey soil, due to its differential drying rate with respect to the surface, will induce horizontal cracks, reducing columns to blocky peds. Roots, rodents, worms, and freezing-thawing cycles further break the peds into a spherical shape.
At a smaller scale, plant roots extend into voids and remove water causing the open spaces to increase, and decrease physical aggregation size. At the same time roots, fungal hyphae and earthworms create microscopic tunnels that break up peds.
At an even smaller scale, soil aggregation continues as bacteria and fungi exude sticky polysaccharides which bind soil into small peds. The addition of the raw organic matter that bacteria and fungi feed upon encourages the formation of this desirable soil structure.
At the lowest scale, the soil chemistry affects the aggregation or dispersal of soil particles. The clay particles contain polyvalent cations which give the faces of clay layers a net negative charge. At the same time the edges of the clay plates have a slight positive charge, thereby allowing the edges to adhere to the faces of other clay particles or to flocculate (form clumps). On the other hand, when monovalent ions such as sodium invade and displace the polyvalent cations, they weaken the positive charges on the edges, while the negative surface charges are relatively strengthened. This leaves a net negative charge on the clay, causing the particles to push apart, and by doing so to prevent the flocculation of clay particles into larger, open assemblages. As a result, the clay disperses and settles into voids between peds, causing those to close. In this way the soil aggregation is destroyed and the soil is made impenetrable to air and water. Such sodic soil tends to form columnar structures near the surface.
Density is the weight per unit volume of an object. Particle density is equal to the mass of solid particles divided by the volume of solid particles - it is the density of only the mineral particles that make up a soil; i.e., it excludes pore space and organic material. Soil particle density is typically 2.60 to 2.75 grams per cm3 and is usually unchanging for a given soil. Soil particle density is lower for soils with high organic matter content, and is higher for soils with high Fe-oxides content. Soil bulk density is equal to the dry mass of the soil divided by the volume of the soil; i.e., it includes air space and organic materials of the soil volume. A high bulk density is indicative of either soil compaction or high sand content. The bulk density of cultivated loam is about 1.1 to 1.4 g/cm3 (for comparison water is 1.0 g/cm3).  Soil bulk density is highly variable for a given soil. A lower bulk density by itself does not indicate suitability for plant growth due to the influence of soil texture and structure. Soil bulk density is inherently always less than the soil particle density.
|Soil treatment and identification||Bulk density g/cm3||Pore space %|
|Tilled surface soil of a cotton field||1.3||51|
|Trafficked inter-rows where wheels passed surface||1.67||37|
|Traffic pan at 25 cm deep||1.7||36|
|Undisturbed soil below traffic pan, clay loam||1.5||43|
|Rocky silt loam soil under aspen forest||1.62||40|
|Loamy sand surface soil||1.5||43|
Pore space is that part of the bulk volume of soil that is not occupied by either mineral or organic matter but is open space occupied by either gases or water. Ideally, the total pore space should be 50% of the soil volume. The gas space is needed to supply oxygen to organisms decomposing organic matter, humus, and plant roots. Pore space also allows the movement and storage of water and dissolved nutrients. This property of soils effectively compartmentalizes the soil pore space such that many organisms are not in direct competition with one another, which may explain not only the large number of species present, but the fact that functionally redundant organisms (organisms with the same ecological niche) can co-exist within the same soil.
There are four categories of pores:
In comparison, root hairs are 8 to 12 µm in diameter. When pore space is less than 30 µm, the forces of attraction that hold water in place are greater than the gravitational force acting to drain the water. At that point, soil becomes water-logged and it cannot breathe. For a growing plant, pore size is of greater importance than total pore space. A medium-textured loam provides the ideal balance of pore sizes. Having large pore spaces that allow rapid gas and water movement is superior to smaller pore space soil that has a greater percentage pore space. Soil texture determines the pore space at the smallest scale, but at a larger scale, soil structure has a strong influence on soil aeration, water infiltration and drainage.  Tillage has the short-term benefit of temporarily increasing the number of pores of largest size, but in the end those will be degraded by the destruction of soil aggregation. Clay soils have smaller pores, but more total pore space than sand.
Consistency is the ability of soil to stick to itself or to other objects (cohesion and adhesion respectively) and its ability to resist deformation and rupture. It is of approximate use in predicting cultivation problems and the engineering of foundations. Consistency is measured at three moisture conditions: air-dry, moist, and wet; In those conditions the consistency quality depend upon the clay content. In the wet state, the two qualities of stickiness and plasticity are assessed. A soil's resistance to fragmentation and crumbling is assessed in the dry state by rubbing the sample. Its resistance to shearing forces is assessed in the moist state by thumb and finger pressure. Finally, a soil's plasticity is measured in the wet state by moulding with the hand. Finally, the cemented consistency depends on cementation by substances other than clay, such as calcium carbonate, silica, oxides and salts; moisture content has little effect on its assessment. The measures of consistency border on subjective as they employ the "feel" of the soil in those states.
The terms used to describe the soil consistency in three moisture states and a last consistency not affected by the amount of moisture are as follows:
Soil consistency is useful in estimating the ability of soil to support buildings and roads. More precise measures of soil strength are often made prior to construction.
Soil temperature depends on the ratio of the energy absorbed to that lost. Soil has a temperature range between -20 to 60 °C. Soil temperature regulates seed germination, plant and root growth and the availability of nutrients. Below 50 cm (20 in), soil temperature seldom changes and can be approximated by adding 1.8 °C (2 °F) to the mean annual air temperature. Soil temperature has important seasonal, monthly and daily variations. Fluctuations in soil temperature are much lower with increasing soil depth. Heavy mulching (a type of soil cover) can slow the warming of soil, and, at the same time, reduce fluctuations in surface temperature.
Most often, agricultural activities must adapt to soil temperatures by:
Otherwise soil temperatures can be raised by drying soils or the use of clear plastic mulches. Organic mulches slow the warming of the soil.
There are various factors that affect soil temperature, such as water content, soil color, and relief (slope, orientation, and elevation), and soil cover (shading and insulation). The color of the ground cover and its insulating properties have a strong influence on soil temperature. Whiter soil tends to have a higher albedo than blacker soil cover, which encourages whiter soils to have cooler soil temperatures. The specific heat of soil is the energy required to raise the temperature of soil by 1 °C. The specific heat of soil increases as water content increases, since the heat capacity of water is greater than that of dry soil. The specific heat of pure water is ~ 1 calorie per gram, the specific heat of dry soil is ~ 0.2 calories per gram and the specific heat of wet soil is ~ 0.2 to 1 calories per gram. Also, tremendous energy (~540 cal/g) is required and dissipated to evaporate water (known as the heat of vaporization). As such, wet soil usually warms more slowly than dry soil - wet surface soil is typically 3 to 6 °C colder than dry surface soil.
Soil heat flux refers to the conduction (or movement) of energy (or heat) in response to a temperature gradient. The heat flux density is the amount of energy that flows through soil per unit area per unit time has both magnitude and direction.
where (including the SI units)
The thermal conductivity, , is often treated as a constant, though this is not always true. While the thermal conductivity of a material generally varies with temperature, the variation is generally small over a significant range of temperatures for some common materials. In anisotropic materials, the thermal conductivity typically varies with orientation; in this case is represented by a second-order tensor. In nonuniform materials, varies with spatial location. For soil, thermal conductivity also depends on mineral composition, water content, and bulk density. Compact and wet soils have a higher thermal conductivity than loose and dry soils. For many simple applications, Fourier's law is used in its one-dimensional, x-direction form:
|Component||Thermal Conductivity (W.m‐1.K‐1)|
Soil colour is often the first impression one has when viewing soil. Striking colours and contrasting patterns are especially noticeable. The Red River (Mississippi watershed) carries sediment eroded from extensive reddish soils like Port Silt Loam in Oklahoma. The Yellow River in China carries yellow sediment from eroding loess soils. Mollisols in the Great Plains of North America are darkened and enriched by organic matter. Podsols in boreal forests have highly contrasting layers due to acidity and leaching.
In general, color is determined by the organic matter content, drainage conditions, and degree of oxidation. Soil color, while easily discerned, has little use in predicting soil characteristics."Arizona Master Gardener Manual". Cooperative Extension, College of Agriculture, University of Arizona. p. Chapter 2, pp 4–8. Retrieved 27 May 2013. It is of use in distinguishing boundaries within a soil profile, determining the origin of a soil's parent material, as an indication of wetness and waterlogged conditions, and as a qualitative means of measuring organic, salt and carbonate contents of soils. Color is recorded in the Munsell color system as for instance 10YR3/4.
Soil color is primarily influenced by soil mineralogy. Many soil colours are due to various iron minerals. The development and distribution of colour in a soil profile result from chemical and biological weathering, especially redox reactions. As the primary minerals in soil parent material weather, the elements combine into new and colourful compounds. Iron forms secondary minerals of a yellow or red colour, organic matter decomposes into black and brown compounds, and manganese, sulfur and nitrogen can form black mineral deposits. These pigments can produce various colour patterns within a soil. Aerobic conditions produce uniform or gradual colour changes, while reducing environments (anaerobic) result in rapid colour flow with complex, mottled patterns and points of colour concentration.
Soil resistivity is a measure of a soil's ability to retard the conduction of an electric current. The electrical resistivity of soil can affect the rate of galvanic corrosion of metallic structures in contact with the soil. Higher moisture content or increased electrolyte concentration can lower resistivity and increase conductivity, thereby increasing the rate of corrosion. Soil resistivity values typically range from about 2 to 1000 Ω·m, but more extreme values are not unusual.
Water affects soil formation, structure, stability and erosion but is of primary concern with respect to plant growth. Water is essential to plants for four reasons:
In addition, water alters the soil profile by dissolving and re-depositing minerals, often at lower levels, and possibly leaving the soil sterile in the case of extreme rainfall and drainage. In a loam soil, solids constitute half the volume, gas one-quarter of the volume, and water one-quarter of the volume of which only half will be available to most plants.
A flooded field will drain the gravitational water under the influence of gravity until water's adhesive and cohesive forces resist further drainage at which point it has finally reached field capacity. At that point, plants must apply suction to draw water from a soil. When soil becomes too dry, the available water is used up and the remaining moisture is unavailable water as the plant cannot produce sufficient suction to draw the water in. A plant must produce suction that increases from zero for a flooded field to 1/3 bar at field dry condition. At 15 bar suction, wilting percent, seeds will not germinate, plants begin to wilt and then die. Water moves in soil under the influence of gravity, osmosis and capillarity. When water enters the soil, it displaces air from some of the pores, since air content of a soil is inversely related to its water content.
The rate at which a soil can absorb water depends on the soil and its other conditions. As a plant grows, its roots remove water from the largest pores first. Soon the larger pores hold only air, and the remaining water is found only in the intermediate- and smallest-sized pores. The water in the smallest pores is so strongly held on particle surfaces that plant roots cannot pull it away. Consequently, not all soil water is available to plants. When saturated, the soil may lose nutrients as the water drains. Water moves in a drained field under the influence of pressure where the soil is locally saturated and by capillarity pull. Most plant water needs are supplied from the suction caused by of evaporation from plant leaves and 10% is supplied by "suction" created by osmotic pressure differences between the plant interior and the soil water. Plant roots must seek out water. Insufficient water will damage the yield of a crop. Most of the available water is used in transpiration to pull nutrients into the plant.
Water is retained in a soil when the adhesive force of attraction of water's hydrogen atoms for the oxygen of soil particles and the cohesive forces water's hydrogen feels for other water's oxygen atoms are stronger than the forces that might pull it from the soil. When a field is flooded, the air in the soil pore space is displaced by water. The field will drain under the force of gravity until it reaches what is called field capacity, at which point the smallest pores are filled with water and the largest with water and gases. The total amount of water held when field capacity is reached is a function of the specific surface area of the soil particles. As a result, high clay and high organic soils have higher field capacities. The total force required to pull or push water out of soil is termed suction and usually expressed in units of bars (105 pascal) which is just a little less than one-atmosphere pressure. Alternatively, the terms "tension" or "moisture potential" may be used.
The forces with which water is held in soils determine its availability to plants. Forces of adhesion hold water strongly to mineral and humus surfaces and less strongly to itself by cohesive forces. A plant's root may penetrate a very small volume of water that is adhering to soil and be initially able to draw in water that is only lightly held by the cohesive forces. But as the droplet is drawn down, the forces of adhesion of the water for the soil particles make reducing the volume of water increasingly difficult until the plant cannot produce sufficient suction to use the remaining water. The remaining water is considered unavailable. The amount of available water depends upon the soil texture and humus amounts and the type of plant attempting to use the water. Cacti, for example, can produce greater suction than can agricultural crop plants.
The following description applies to a loam soil and agricultural crops. When a field is flooded, it is said to be saturated and all available air space is occupied by water. The suction required to draw water into a plant root is zero. As the field drains under the influence of gravity (drained water is called gravitational water or drain-able water), the suction a plant must produce to use such water increases to 1/3 bar. At that point, the soil is said to have reached field capacity, and plants that use the water must produce increasingly higher suction, finally up to 15 bar. At 15 bar suction, the soil water amount is called wilting percent. At that suction the plant cannot sustain its water needs as water is still being lost from the plant by transpiration; the plant's turgidity is lost, and it wilts. The next level, called air-dry, occurs at 1000 bar suction. Finally the oven dry condition is reached at 10,000 bar suction. All water below wilting percentage is called unavailable water.
When the soil moisture content is optimal for plant growth, the water in the large and intermediate size pores can move about in the soil and be easily used by plants. The amount of water remaining in a soil drained to field capacity and the amount that is available are functions of the soil type. Sandy soil will retain very little water, while clay will hold the maximum amount. The time required to drain a field from flooded condition for a clay loam that begins at 43% water by weight to a field capacity of 21.5% is six days, whereas a sand loam that is flooded to its maximum of 22% water will take two days to reach field capacity of 11.3% water. The available water for the clay loam might be 11.3% whereas for the sand loam it might be only 7.9% by weight.
|Soil Texture||Wilting Point||Field Capacity||Available water capacity|
|Water per foot of soil depth||Water per foot of soil depth||Water per foot of soil depth|
|Fine sandy loam||4.5||0.8||14.7||2.6||10.2||1.8|
The above are average values for the soil textures as the percentage of sand, silt and clay vary within the listed soil textures.
Water moves through soil due to the force of gravity, osmosis and capillarity. At zero to one-third bar suction, water is pushed through soil from the point of its application under the force of gravity and the pressure gradient created by the pressure of the water; this is called saturated flow. At higher suction, water movement is pulled by capillarity from wetter toward dryer soil. This is caused by water's adhesion to soil solids, and is called unsaturated flow.
Water infiltration and movement in soil is controlled by six factors:
Water infiltration rates range from 0.25 cm (0.098 in) per hour for high clay soils to 2.5 cm (0.98 in) per hour for sand and well stabilised and aggregated soil structures. Water flows through the ground unevenly, called "gravity fingers", because of the surface tension between water particles.  Tree roots create paths for rainwater flow through soil by breaking though soil including clay layers: one study showed roots increasing infiltration of water by 153% and another study showed an increase by 27 times.  Flooding temporarily increases soil permeability in river beds, helping to recharge aquifers.
Of equal importance to the storage and movement of water in soil is the means by which plants acquire it and their nutrients. Ninety percent of water is taken up by plants as passive absorption caused by the pulling force of water evaporating (transpiring) from the long column of water that leads from the plant's roots to its leaves. In addition, the high concentration of salts within plant roots creates an osmotic pressure gradient that pushes soil water into the roots. Osmotic absorption becomes more important during times of low water transpiration caused by lower temperatures (for example at night) or high humidity. It is the process that causes guttation.
Root extension is vital for plant survival. A study of a single winter rye plant grown for four months in one cubic foot of loam soil showed that the plant developed 13,800,000 roots a total of 385 miles in length and 2,550 square feet in surface area and 14 billion hair roots of 6,600 miles total length and 4,320 square feet total area, for a total surface area of 6,870 square feet (83 ft squared). The total surface area of the loam soil was estimated to be 560,000 square feet. In other words the roots were in contact with only 1.2% of the soil. Roots must seek out water as the unsaturated flow of water in soil can move only at a rate of up to 2.5 cm (one inch) per day; as a result they are constantly dying and growing as they seek out high concentrations of soil moisture.
Insufficient soil moisture, to the point of causing wilting, will cause permanent damage and crop yields will suffer. When grain sorghum was exposed to soil suction as low as 13.0 bar during the seed head emergence through bloom and seed set stages of growth, its production was reduced by 34%.
Only a small fraction (0.1% to 1%) of the water used by a plant is held within the plant. The majority is ultimately lost via transpiration, while evaporation from the soil surface is also substantial. Transpiration plus evaporative soil moisture loss is called evapotranspiration. Evapotranspiration plus water held in the plant totals to consumptive use, which is nearly identical to evapotranspiration.
The total water used in an agricultural field includes runoff, drainage and consumptive use. The use of loose mulches will reduce evaporative losses for a period after a field is irrigated, but in the end the total evaporative loss will approach that of an uncovered soil. The benefit from mulch is to keep the moisture available during the seedling stage. Water use efficiency is measured by transpiration ratio, which is the ratio of the total water transpired by a plant to the dry weight of the harvested plant. Transpiration ratios for crops range from 300 to 700. For example alfalfa may have a transpiration ratio of 500 and as a result 500 kilograms of water will produce one kilogram of dry alfalfa. 
The atmosphere of soil is radically different from the atmosphere above. The consumption of oxygen, by microbes and plant roots and their release of carbon dioxide, decrease oxygen and increase carbon dioxide concentration. Atmospheric CO2 concentration is 0.04%, but in the soil pore space it may range from 10 to 100 times that level. At extreme levels CO2 is toxic. In addition, the soil voids are saturated with water vapour. Adequate porosity is necessary not just to allow the penetration of water but also to allow gases to diffuse in and out. Movement of gases is by diffusion from high concentrations to lower. Oxygen diffuses in and is consumed and excess levels of carbon dioxide, diffuse out with other gases as well as water. Soil texture and structure strongly affect soil porosity and gas diffusion. It is the total pore space (porosity) of soil not the pore size that determines the rate of diffusion of gases into and out of soil. A Platy soil structure and compacted soils (low porosity) impede gas flow, and a deficiency of oxygen may encourage anaerobic bacteria to reduce nitrate NO3 to the gases N2, N2O, and NO, which are then lost to the atmosphere. Aerated soil is also a net sink of methane CH4 but a net producer of greenhouse gases when soils are depleted of oxygen and subject to elevated temperatures.
Soil particles can be classified by their chemical composition (mineralogy) as well as their size. The particle size distribution of a soil, its texture, determines many of the properties of that soil, but the mineralogy of those particles can strongly modify those properties. The mineralogy of the finest soil particles, clay, is especially important.
Gravel, sand and silt are the larger soil particles, and their mineralogy is often inherited from the parent material of the soil, but may include products of weathering (such as concretions of calcium carbonate or iron oxide), or residues of plant and animal life (such as silica phytoliths). Quartz is the most common mineral in the sand or silt fraction as it is resistant to chemical weathering; other common minerals are felspars, micas and ferromagnesian minerals such as pyroxenes, amphiboles and olivines.
Due to its high specific surface area and its unbalanced negative charges, clay is the most active mineral component of soil. It is a colloidal and most often a crystalline material. In soils, clay is defined in a physical sense as any mineral particle less than 2 µm (8×10−5 in) in effective diameter. Chemically, clay is a range of minerals with certain reactive properties. Clay is also a soil textural class. Many soil minerals, such as gypsum, carbonates, or quartz, are small enough to be classified physically as clay but chemically they do not afford the same utility as do clay minerals.
Clay was once thought to be very small particles of quartz, feldspar, mica, hornblende or augite, but it is now known to be (with the exception of mica-based clays) a precipitate with a mineralogical composition that is dependent on but different from its parent materials and is classed as a secondary mineral. The type of clay that is formed is a function of the parent material and the composition of the minerals in solution. Clay minerals continue to be formed as long as the soil exists. Mica-based clays result from a modification of the primary mica mineral in such a way that it behaves and is classed as a clay. Most clays are crystalline, but some are amorphous. The clays of a soil are a mixture of the various types of clay, but one type predominates.
Most clays are crystalline and most are made up of three or four planes of oxygen held together by planes of aluminium and silicon by way of ionic bonds that together form a single layer of clay. The spatial arrangement of the oxygen atoms determines clay's structure. Half of the weight of clay is oxygen, but on a volume basis oxygen is ninety percent. The layers of clay are sometimes held together through hydrogen bonds or potassium bridges and as a result will swell less in the presence of water. Other clays, such as montmorillonite, have layers that are loosely attached and will swell greatly when water intervenes between the layers.
There are three groups of clays:
Humus is the penultimate state of decomposition of organic matter; while it may linger for a thousand years, on the larger scale of the age of the mineral soil components, it is temporary. It is composed of the very stable lignins (30%) and complex sugars (polyuronides, 30%), proteins (30%), waxes, and fats that are resistant to breakdown by microbes. Its chemical assay is 60% carbon, 5% nitrogen, some oxygen and the remainder hydrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus. On a dry weight basis, the CEC of humus is many times greater than that of clay.
In the extreme environment of high temperatures and the leaching caused by the heavy rain of tropical rain forests, the clay and organic colloids are largely destroyed. The heavy rains wash the alumino-silicate clays from the soil leaving only sesquioxide clays of low CEC. The high temperatures and humidity allow bacteria and fungi to virtually dissolve any organic matter on the rain-forest floor overnight and much of the nutrients are volatilized or leached from the soil and lost. However, carbon in the form of charcoal is far more stable than soil colloids and is capable of performing many of the functions of the soil colloids of sub-tropical soils. Soil containing substantial quantities of charcoal, of an anthropogenic origin, is called terra preta. Research into terra preta is still young but is promising. Fallow periods "on the Amazonian Dark Earths can be as short as 6 months, whereas fallow periods on oxisols are usually 8 to 10 years long"
The chemistry of a soil determines its ability to supply available plant nutrients and affects its physical properties and the health of its microbial population. In addition, a soil's chemistry also determines its corrosivity, stability, and ability to absorb pollutants and to filter water. It is the surface chemistry of mineral and organic colloids that determines soil's chemical properties. “A colloid is a small, insoluble, nondiffusible particle larger than a molecule but small enough to remain suspended in a fluid medium without settling. Most soils contain organic colloidal particles called humus as well as the inorganic colloidal particles of clays.” The very high specific surface area of colloids and their net charges, gives soil its great ability to hold and release ions. Negatively charged sites on colloids attract and release cations in what is referred to as cation exchange. Cation-exchange capacity (CEC) is the amount of exchangeable cations per unit weight of dry soil and is expressed in terms of milliequivalents of positively charged ions per 100 grams of soil (or centimoles of positive charge per kilogram of soil; cmolc/kg). Similarly, positively charged sites on colloids can attract and release anions in the soil giving the soil anion exchange capacity (AEC).
The cation exchange, that takes place between colloids and soil water, buffers (moderates) soil pH, alters soil structure, and purifies percolating water by adsorbing cations of all types, both useful and harmful.
The negative or positive charges on colloid particles make them able to hold cations or anions, respectively, to their surfaces. The charges result from four sources.
Cations held to the negatively charged colloids resist being washed downward by water and out of reach of plants' roots, thereby preserving the fertility of soils in areas of moderate rainfall and low temperatures.
There is a hierarchy in the process of cation exchange on colloids, as they differ in the strength of adsorption by the colloid and hence their ability to replace one another. If present in equal amounts in the soil water solution:
Al3+ replaces H+ replaces Ca2+ replaces Mg2+ replaces K+ same as NH4+ replaces Na+
If one cation is added in large amounts, it may replace the others by the sheer force of its numbers. This is called mass action. This is largely what occurs with the addition of fertiliser.
As the soil solution becomes more acidic (an abundance of H+), the other cations more weakly bound to colloids are pushed into solution and hydrogen ions occupy those sites. A low pH may cause hydrogen of hydroxyl groups to be pulled into solution, leaving charged sites on the colloid available to be occupied by other cations. This ionisation of hydroxyl groups on the surface of soil colloids creates what is described as pH-dependent charges. Unlike permanent charges developed by isomorphous substitution, pH-dependent charges are variable and increase with increasing pH. Freed cations can be made available to plants but are also prone to be leached from the soil, possibly making the soil less fertile. Plants are able to excrete H+ into the soil and by that means, change the pH of the soil near the root and push cations off the colloids, thus making those available to the plant.
|Soil||State||CEC meq/100 g|
|Charlotte fine sand||Florida||1.0|
|Ruston fine sandy loam||Texas||1.9|
|Glouchester loam||New Jersey||11.9|
|Grundy silt loam||Illinois||26.3|
|Gleason clay loam||California||31.6|
|Susquehanna clay loam||Alabama||34.3|
|Davie mucky fine sand||Florida||100.8|
|Sands||------||1 - 5|
|Fine sandy loams||------||5-10|
|Loams and silt loams||-----||5-15|
|Vermiculite (similar to illite)||-----||80-150|
Soil reactivity is expressed in terms of pH and is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of the soil. More precisely, it is a measure of hydrogen ion concentration in an aqueous solution and ranges in values from 0 to 14 (acidic to basic) but practically speaking for soils, pH ranges from 3.5 to 9.5, as pH values beyond those extremes are toxic to life forms.
The resistance of soil to changes in pH as a result of the addition of acid or basic material is a measure of the buffering capacity of a soil and increases as the CEC increases. Hence, pure sand has almost no buffering ability, while soils high in colloids have high buffering capacity. Buffering occurs by cation exchange and neutralisation.
The addition of a small amount highly basic aqueous ammonia to a soil will cause the ammonium to displace hydrogen ions from the colloids, and the end product is water and colloidally fixed ammonium, but no permanent change overall in soil pH.
The addition of a small amount of lime, CaCO3, will displace hydrogen ions from the soil colloids, causing the fixation of calcium to colloids and the evolution of CO2 and water, with no permanent change in soil pH.
The addition of carbonic acid (the solution of CO2 in water) will displace calcium from colloids, as hydrogen ions are fixed to the colloids, evolving water and slightly alkaline (temporary increase in pH) highly soluble calcium bicarbonate, which will then precipitate as lime (CaCO3) and water at a lower level in the soil profile, with the result of no permanent change in soil pH.
All of the above are examples of the buffering of soil pH. The general principal is that an increase in a particular cation in the soil water solution will cause that cation to be fixed to colloids (buffered) and a decrease in solution of that cation will cause it to be withdrawn from the colloid and moved into solution (buffered). The degree of buffering is limited by the CEC of the soil; the greater the CEC, the greater the buffering capacity of the soil.
Sixteen nutrients are essential for plant growth and reproduction. They are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, calcium, magnesium, iron, boron, manganese, copper, zinc, molybdenum, and chlorine. Nutrients required for plants to complete their life cycle are considered essential nutrients. Nutrients that enhance the growth of plants but are not necessary to complete the plant's life cycle are considered non-essential. With the exception of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, which are supplied by carbon dioxide and water, the nutrients derive originally from the mineral component of the soil. Although minerals are the origin of those nutrients, the organic component of the soil is the reservoir of the majority of readily available plant nutrients. For the nutrients to be available to plants, they must be in the proper ionic form (with the exception of water and CO2). For example, the application of finely ground minerals, feldspar and apatite, to soil does not provide the necessary amounts of potassium and phosphorus for good plant growth. Nitrogen is the primary limiting nutrient and phosphorus is second to nitrogen as the primary nutrient for plants, animals and microorganisms.
The provision of plant nutrition involves chemical, biological, and physical processes. Nearly all plant nutrients are taken up from the soil water solution in the form of ions, either cations or as anions. In an effort to gain nutrients, plants will release ions to the soil. Bicarbonate (HCO3-) and hydroxyl (OH-) anions released from plant roots enhance the absorption of nutrient anions; similarly, hydrogen cations are released in exchange for cation forms of nutrients. As a result, nutrient ions are pushed into the soil water solution from their sequestration on colloids to become available to plants. Nitrogen, for example, is available in soil organic material but is unusable by plants until it is made available by that material's decomposition by micro-organisms into cation or anion forms. The NH4+ (ammonium) and NO3- (nitrate) forms of nitrogen are stored on the soil colloids until forced off those by the presence of other cations and anions. After that, they will move by physical means to near the plant roots. Generally, plant roots can readily absorb all of the nutrients from the soil solution, provided there is enough oxygen gas in the soil to support root metabolism.
The bulk of most nutrient elements in the soil is held in the form of primary and secondary minerals, and organic matter. The primary minerals (mostly rock dust in the form of silt) hold the nutrients too tightly to be readily available; the nutrients adsorbed onto the colloids clay and humus are moderately available; and the soil solution fraction has ions that are freely available for absorption by plant roots. Gram for gram, the capacity of humus to hold nutrients and water is far greater than that of clay. All in all, small amounts of humus may remarkably increase the soil’s capacity to promote plant growth.
|Element||Symbol||Ion or molecule|
|Carbon||C||CO2 (mostly through leaves)|
|Hydrogen||H||H+, HOH (water)|
|Oxygen||O||O2-, OH -, CO32-, SO42-, CO2|
|Phosphorus||P||H2PO4 -, HPO42- (phosphates)|
|Nitrogen||N||NH4+, NO3 - (ammonium, nitrate)|
|Iron||Fe||Fe2+, Fe3+ (ferrous, ferric)|
|Boron||B||H3BO3, H2BO3 -, B(OH)4 -|
|Chlorine||Cl||Cl - (chloride)|
All the nutrients with the exception of carbon are taken up by the plant through its roots. To be taken up by a plant, a nutrient element must be in an ionic form (with the exception of water and H3BO3) and must be located at the root surface. Often, parts of a root are in such intimate contact with soil particles that a direct exchange may take place between nutrient ions adsorbed on the surface of the soil colloids and hydrogen ions from the surface of root cell walls. In any case, the supply of nutrients in contact with the root would soon be depleted. There are however, three basic mechanisms by which the concentration of nutrient ions at the root surface is maintained. Nutrient levels are maintained by three principal mechanisms by which nutrient ions dissolved in the soil solution are brought into contact with plant roots:
All three mechanisms operate simultaneously, but one mechanism or another may be most important for a particular nutrient. For example, in the case of calcium, which is generally plentiful in the soil solution, mass flow alone can usually bring sufficient amounts to the root surface. However, in the case of phosphorus, diffusion is needed to supplement mass flow because the soil solution is very low in this element in comparison to the amounts needed by plants. For the most part, nutrient ions must travel some distance in the soil solution to reach the root surface. This movement can take place by mass flow, as when dissolved nutrients are carried along with the soil water flowing toward a root that is actively drawing water from the soil. In this type of movement, the nutrient ions are somewhat analogous to leaves floating down a stream. In addition, nutrient ions continually move by diffusion from areas of greater concentration toward the nutrient-depleted areas of lower concentration around the root surface. By this means, plants can continue to take up nutrients even at night, when water is only slowly absorbed into the roots. Finally, root interception comes into play as roots continually grow into new, undepleted soil.
Because nutrient uptake is an active metabolic process, conditions that inhibit root metabolism may also inhibit nutrient uptake. Examples of such conditions include excessive soil water content or soil compaction resulting in poor soil aeration, excessively high or low soil temperatures, and above-ground conditions that result in low translocation of sugars to plant roots. A maize plant will use one quart of water per day at the height of its growing season.
|Nutrient||Approximate percentage supplied by:|
|Mass flow||Root interception||Diffusion|
In the above table, phosphorus and potassium nutrients move more by diffusion than they do by mass flow in water solution, as they are rapidly taken up by the roots creating a concentration of almost zero near the roots. The very steep concentration gradient is of greater influence in the movement of those ions than is the movement of those by mass flow. The movement by mass flow requires the transpiration of water from the plant causing water and solution ions to also move toward the roots. Movement by root interception is slowest as the plants must extend their roots. Plants move ions out of their roots in an effort to move nutrients in from the soil. Hydrogen H+ is exchanged for cations, and carbonate (HCO3-) and hydroxide (OH-) anions are exchanged for nutrient anions. Plants derive most of their anion nutrients from decomposing organic matter, which holds 95 percent of the nitrogen, 5 to 60 percent of the phosphorus and 80 percent of the sulfur. As plant roots remove nutrients from the soil water solution, nutrients are added to the soil water as other ions move off of clay and humus, are added from the decomposition of soil minerals, and are released by the decomposition of organic matter. Where crops are produced, the replenishment of nutrients in the soil must be augmented by the addition of fertiliser or organic matter.
Plants obtain their carbon from atmospheric carbon dioxide. A plant's weight is forty-five percent carbon. Elementally, carbon is 50% of plant material. Plant residues have a carbon to nitrogen ratio (C/N) of 50:1. As the soil organic material is digested by arthropods and micro-organisms, the C/N decreases as the carbonaceous material is metabolised and carbon dioxide (CO2) is released as a byproduct which then finds its way out of the soil and into the atmosphere. The nitrogen, and other nutrients however, is sequestered in the bodies of the living matter of those organisms and so it builds up in the soil. Normal CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is 0.03%, which is probably the factor limiting plant growth. In a field of maize on a still day during high light conditions in the growing season, the CO2 concentration drops very low, but under such conditions the crop could use up to 20 times the normal concentration. The respiration of CO2 by soil micro-organisms decomposing soil organic matter contributes an important amount of CO2 to the photosynthesising plants. Within the soil, CO2 concentration is 10 to 100 times that of atmospheric levels but may rise to toxic levels if the soil porosity is low or if diffusion is impeded by flooding.
Nitrogen is the most critical element obtained by plants from the soil and is a bottleneck in plant growth. Plants can use the nitrogen as either the ammonium cation (NH4+) or the anion nitrate (NO3-). Nitrogen is seldom missing in the soil, but is often in the form of raw organic material which cannot be used directly. The total nitrogen content depends on the climate, vegetation, topography, age and soil management. Soil nitrogen typically decreases by 0.2 to 0.3% for every temperature increase by 10 °C. Usually, more nitrogen is under grassland than under forest. Humus formation promotes nitrogen immobilization. Cultivation decreases soil nitrogen by exposing soil to more air which the bacteria can use, and no-tillage maintains more nitrogen than tillage.
|Organic Material||C:N Ratio|
|Clover, green sweet||16|
|Clover, mature sweet||23|
|Humus in warm cultivated soils||11|
|Legumes (alfalfa or clover), mature||20|
Some micro-organisms are able to metabolise organic matter and release ammonium in a process called mineralisation. Others take free ammonium and oxidise it to nitrate. Particular bacteria are capable of metabolising N2 into the form of nitrate in a process called nitrogen fixation. Both ammonium and nitrate can be immobilized or essentially lost from the soil by its incorporation into the microbes' living cells, where it is temporarily sequestered in the form of amino acids and protein. Nitrate may also be lost from the soil when bacteria metabolise it to the gases N2 and N2O. The loss of gaseous forms of nitrogen to the atmosphere due to microbial action is called denitrification. Nitrogen may also be leached from the soil if it is in the form of nitrate or lost to the atmosphere as ammonia due to a chemical reaction of ammonium with alkaline soil by way of a process called volatilisation. Ammonium may also be sequestered in clay by fixation. A small amount of nitrogen is added to soil by rainfall.
In the process of mineralisation, microbes feed on organic matter, releasing ammonia (NH3) (which may be reduced to ammonium (NH4+) and other nutrients. As long as the carbon to nitrogen ratio (C/N) in the soil is above 30:1, nitrogen will be in short supply and other bacteria will feed on the ammonium and incorporate its nitrogen into their cells in the immobilization process. In that form the nitrogen is said to be immobilised. Later, when such bacteria die, they too are mineralised and some of the nitrogen is released as ammonium and nitrate. If the C/N is less than 15, ammonia is freed to the soil, where it may be used by bacteria which oxidise it to nitrate (nitrification). Bacteria may on average add 25 pounds (11 kg) nitrogen per acre, and in an unfertilised field, this is the most important source of usable nitrogen. In a soil with 5% organic matter perhaps 2 to 5% of that is released to the soil by such decomposition. It occurs fastest in warm, moist, well aerated soil. The mineralisation of 3% of the organic material of a soil that is 4% organic matter overall, would release 120 pounds (54 kg) of nitrogen as ammonium per acre.
In nitrogen fixation, rhizobium bacteria convert N2 to nitrate (NO3-). Rhizobia share a symbiotic relationship with host plants, since rhizobia supply the host with nitrogen and the host provides rhizobia with nutrients and a safe environment. It is estimated that such symbiotic bacteria in the root nodules of legumes add 45 to 250 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year, which may be sufficient for the crop. Other, free-living nitrogen-fixing bacteria and blue-green algae live independently in the soil and release nitrate when their dead bodies are converted by way of mineralisation.
Some amount of usable nitrogen is fixed by lightning as nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2-). Nitrogen dioxide is soluble in water to form nitric acid (HNO3) solution of H+ and NO3-. Ammonia, NH3, previously released from the soil or from combustion, may fall with precipitation as nitric acid at a rate of about five pounds nitrogen per acre per year.
When bacteria feed on soluble forms of nitrogen (ammonium and nitrate), they temporarily sequester that nitrogen in their bodies in a process called immobilisation. At a later time when those bacteria die, their nitrogen may be released as ammonium by the processes of mineralisation.
Protein material is easily broken down, but the rate of its decomposition is slowed by its attachment to the crystalline structure of clay and when trapped between the clay layers. The layers are small enough that bacteria cannot enter. Some organisms can exude extracellular enzymes that can act on the sequestered proteins. However, those enzymes too may be trapped on the clay crystals.
Usable nitrogen may be lost from soils when it is in the form of nitrate, as it is easily leached. Further losses of nitrogen occur by denitrification, the process whereby soil bacteria convert nitrate (NO3-) to nitrogen gas, N2 or N2O. This occurs when poor soil aeration limits free oxygen, forcing bacteria to use the oxygen in nitrate for their respiratory process. Denitrification increases when oxidisable organic material is available and when soils are warm and slightly acidic. Denitrification may vary throughout a soil as the aeration varies from place to place. Denitrification may cause the loss of 10 to 20 percent of the available nitrates within a day and when conditions are favourable to that process, losses of up to 60 percent of nitrate applied as fertiliser may occur.
Ammonium volatilisation occurs when ammonium reacts chemically with an alkaline soil, converting NH4+ to NH3. The application of ammonium fertiliser to such a field can result in volatilisation losses of as much as 30 percent.
Phosphorus is the second most critical plant nutrient. The soil mineral apatite is the most common mineral source of phosphorus. While there is on average 1000 lb of phosphorus per acre in the soil, it is generally unavailable in the form of phosphates of low solubility. Total phosphorus is about 0.1 percent by weight of the soil, but only one percent of that is available. Of the part available, more than half comes from the mineralisation of organic matter. Agricultural fields may need to be fertilised to make up for the phosphorus that has been removed in the crop.
When phosphorus does form solubilised ions of H2PO4-, they rapidly form insoluble phosphates of calcium or hydrous oxides of iron and aluminum. Phosphorus is largely immobile in the soil and is not leached but actually builds up in the surface layer if not cropped. The application of soluble fertilisers to soils may result in zinc deficiencies as zinc phosphates form. Conversely, the application of zinc to soils may immobilise phosphorus again as zinc phosphate. Lack of phosphorus may interfere with the normal opening of the plant leaf stomata, resulting in plant temperatures 10 percent higher than normal. Phosphorus is most available when soil pH is 6.5 in mineral soils and 5.5 in organic soils.
The amount of potassium in a soil may be as much as 80,000 lb per acre-foot, of which only 150 lb is available for plant growth. Common mineral sources of potassium are the mica biotite and potassium feldspar, KAlSi3O8. When solubilised, half will be held as exchangeable cations on clay while the other half is in the soil water solution. Potassium fixation often occurs when soils dry and the potassium is bonded between layers of illite clay. Under certain conditions, dependent on the soil texture, intensity of drying, and initial amount of exchangeable potassium, the fixed percentage may be as much as 90 percent within ten minutes. Potassium may be leached from soils low in clay.
Calcium is 1 percent by weight of soils and is generally available but may be low as it is soluble and can be leached. It is thus low in sandy and heavily leached soil or strongly acidic mineral soil. Calcium is supplied to the plant in the form of exchangeable ions and moderately soluble minerals. Calcium is more available on the soil colloids than is potassium because the common mineral calcite, CaCO3, is more soluble than potassium-bearing minerals.
Magnesium is central to chlorophyll and aids in the uptake of phosphorus. The minimum amount of magnesium required for plant health is not sufficient for the health of forage animals. A common mineral source of magnesium is the black mica mineral, biotite. Magnesium is generally available in soil, but is missing from some along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the United States due to leaching by heavy precipitation.
Sulfur is essential to the formation of proteins and chlorophyll, and essential to plant vitamin synthesis. Most sulfur is made available to plants, like phosphorus, by its release from decomposing organic matter. Deficiencies may exist in some soils and if cropped, sulfur needs to be added. The application of large quantities of nitrogen to fields that have marginal amounts of sulfur may cause sulfur deficiency in the rapidly growing plants by the plant's growth outpacing the supply of sulfur. A 15-ton crop of onions uses up to 19 lb of sulfur and 4 tons of alfalfa uses 15 lb per acre. Sulfur abundance varies with depth. In a sample of soils in Ohio, United States, the sulfur abundance varied with depths, 0-6 inches, 6-12 inches, 12-18 inches, 18-24 inches in the amounts: 1056, 830, 686, 528 lb per acre respectively.
The micronutrients essential for plant life, in their order of importance, include iron, manganese, zinc, copper, boron, chlorine and molybdenum. The term refers to plants' needs, not to their abundance in soil. They are required in very small amounts but are essential to plant health in that most are required parts of some enzyme system which speeds up plants' metabolisms. They are generally available in the mineral component of the soil, but the heavy application of phosphates can cause a deficiency in zinc and iron by the formation of insoluble zinc and iron phosphates. Iron deficiency may also result from excessive amounts of heavy metals or calcium minerals (lime) in the soil. Excess amounts of soluble boron, molybdenum and chloride are toxic.
Nutrients which enhance the health but whose deficiency does not stop the life cycle of plants include: cobalt, strontium, vanadium, silicon and nickel. As their importance are evaluated they may be added to the list of essential plant nutrients.
Soil organic matter is made up of organic compounds and includes plant, animal and microbial material, both living and dead. A typical soil has a biomass composition of 70% microorganisms, 22% macrofauna, and 8% roots. The living component of an acre of soil may include 900 lb of earthworms, 2400 lb of fungi, 1500 lb of bacteria, 133 lb of protozoa and 890 lb of arthropods and algae.
A small part of the organic matter consists of the living cells such as bacteria, molds, and actinomycetes that work to break down the dead organic matter. Were it not for the action of these micro-organisms, the entire carbon dioxide part of the atmosphere would be sequestered as organic matter in the soil.
Chemically, organic matter is classed as follows:
Most living things in soils, including plants, insects, bacteria, and fungi, are dependent on organic matter for nutrients and energy. Soils have organic compounds in varying degrees of decomposition which rate is dependent on the temperature, soil moisture, and aeration. Bacteria and fungi feed on the raw organic matter, which are fed upon by amoebas, which in turn are fed upon by nematodes and arthropods. Organic matter holds soils open, allowing the infiltration of air and water, and may hold as much as twice its weight in water. Many soils, including desert and rocky-gravel soils, have little or no organic matter. Soils that are all organic matter, such as peat (histosols), are infertile. In its earliest stage of decomposition, the original organic material is often called raw organic matter. The final stage of decomposition is called humus.
In grassland, much of the organic matter added to the soil is from the deep, fibrous, grass root systems. By contrast, tree leaves falling on the forest floor are the principal source of soil organic matter in the forest. Another difference is the frequent occurrence in the grasslands of fires that destroy large amounts of aboveground material but stimulate even greater contributions from roots. Also, the much greater acidity under any forests inhibits the action of certain soil organisms that otherwise would mix much of the surface litter into the mineral soil. As a result, the soils under grasslands generally develop a thicker A horizon with a deeper distribution of organic matter than in comparable soils under forests, which characteristically store most of their organic matter in the forest floor (O horizon) and thin A horizon.
Humus refers to organic matter that has been decomposed by soil flora and fauna to the point where it is resistant to further breakdown. Humus usually constitutes only five percent of the soil or less by volume, but it is an essential source of nutrients and adds important textural qualities crucial to soil health and plant growth. Humus also hold bits of undecomposed organic matter which feed arthropods and worms which further improve the soil. The end product, humus, is soluble in water and forms a weak acid that can attack silicate minerals. Humus has a high cation exchange capacity that on a dry weight basis is many times greater than that of clay colloids. It also acts as a buffer, like clay, against changes in pH and soil moisture.
Humic acids and fulvic acids, which begin as raw organic matter, are important constituents of humus. After the death of plants and animals, microbes begin to feed on the residues, resulting finally in the formation of humus. With decomposition, there is a reduction of water-soluble constituents, cellulose and hemicellulose, and nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. As the residues break down, only stable molecules made of aromatic carbon rings, oxygen and hydrogen remain in the form of humin, lignin and lignin complexes collectively called humus. While the structure of humus has few nutrients, it is able to attract and hold cation and anion nutrients by weak bonds that can be released into the soil solution in response to changes in soil pH.
Lignin is resistant to breakdown and accumulates within the soil. It also reacts with amino acids, which further increases its resistance to decomposition, including enzymatic decomposition by microbes. Fats and waxes from plant matter have some resistance to decomposition and persist in soils for a while. Clay soils often have higher organic contents that persist longer than soils without clay as the organic molecules adhere to and are stabilised by the clay. Proteins normally decompose readily, but when bound to clay particles, they become more resistant to decomposition. Clay particles also absorb the enzymes exuded by microbes which would normally break down proteins. The addition of organic matter to clay soils can render that organic matter and any added nutrients inaccessible to plants and microbes for many years. High soil tannin (polyphenol) content can cause nitrogen to be sequestered in proteins or cause nitrogen immobilisation.
Humus formation is a process dependent on the amount of plant material added each year and the type of base soil. Both are affected by climate and the type of organisms present. Soils with humus can vary in nitrogen content but typically have 3 to 6 percent nitrogen. Raw organic matter, as a reserve of nitrogen and phosphorus, is a vital component affecting soil fertility. Humus also absorbs water, and expands and shrinks between dry and wet states, increasing soil porosity. Humus is less stable than the soil's mineral constituents, as it is reduced by microbial decomposition, and over time its concentration diminshes without the addition of new organic matter. However, humus may persist over centuries if not millennia.
The production, accumulation and degradation of organic matter are greatly dependent on climate. Temperature, soil moisture and topography are the major factors affecting the accumulation of organic matter in soils. Organic matter tends to accumulate under wet or cold conditions where decomposer activity is impeded by low temperature or excess moisture which results in anaerobic conditions. Conversely, excessive rain and high temperatures of tropical climates enables rapid decomposition of organic matter and leaching of plant nutrients; forest ecosystems on these soils rely on efficient recycling of nutrients and plant matter to maintain their productivity. Excessive slope may encourage the erosion of the top layer of soil which holds most of the raw organic material that would otherwise eventually become humus.
Cellulose and hemicellulose undergo fast decomposition by fungi and bacteria, with a half-life of 12–18 days in a temperate climate. Brown rot fungi can decompose the cellulose and hemicellulose, leaving the lignin and phenolic compounds behind. Starch, which is an energy storage system for plants, undergoes fast decomposition by bacteria and fungi. Lignin consists of polymers composed of 500 to 600 units with a highly branched, amorphous structure. Lignin undergoes very slow decomposition, mainly by white rot fungi and actinomycetes; its half-life under temperate conditions is about six months.
A horizontal layer of the soil, whose physical features, composition and age are distinct from those above and beneath, are referred to as a soil horizon. The naming of a horizon is based on the type of material of which it is composed. Those materials reflect the duration of specific processes of soil formation. They are labelled using a shorthand notation of letters and numbers which describe the horizon in terms of its colour, size, texture, structure, consistency, root quantity, pH, voids, boundary characteristics and presence of nodules or concretions. Few soil profiles have all the major horizons. Some may have only one horizon.
The exposure of parent material to favourable conditions produces mineral soils that are marginally suitable for plant growth. That growth often results in the accumulation of organic residues. The accumulated organic layer called the O horizon produces a more active soil due to the effect of the organisms that live within it. Organisms colonise and break down organic materials, making available nutrients upon which other plants and animals can live. After sufficient time, humus moves downward and is deposited in a distinctive organic surface layer called the A horizon.
Soil is classified into categories in order to understand relationships between different soils and to determine the suitability of a soil for a particular use. One of the first classification systems was developed by the Russian scientist Dokuchaev around 1880. It was modified a number of times by American and European researchers, and developed into the system commonly used until the 1960s. It was based on the idea that soils have a particular morphology based on the materials and factors that form them. In the 1960s, a different classification system began to emerge which focused on soil morphology instead of parental materials and soil-forming factors. Since then it has undergone further modifications. The World Reference Base for Soil Resources (WRB) aims to establish an international reference base for soil classification.
There are fourteen soil orders at the top level of the Australian Soil Classification. They are: Anthroposols, Organosols, Podosols, Vertosols, Hydrosols, Kurosols, Sodosols, Chromosols, Calcarosols, Ferrosols, Dermosols, Kandosols, Rudosols and Tenosols.
The EU's soil taxonomy is based on a new standard soil classification in the World Reference Base for Soil Resources produced by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. According to this, the major soils in the European Union are:
A taxonomy is an arrangement in a systematic manner; the USDA soil taxonomy has six levels of classification. They are, from most general to specific: order, suborder, great group, subgroup, family and series. Soil properties that can be measured quantitatively are used in this classification system — they include: depth, moisture, temperature, texture, structure, cation exchange capacity, base saturation, clay mineralogy, organic matter content and salt content. There are 12 soil orders (the top hierarchical level) in the USDA soil taxonomy. The names of the orders end with the suffix -sol. The criteria for the different soil orders include properties that reflect major differences in the genesis of soils. The orders are:
The percentages listed above are for land area free of ice. "Soils of Mountains", which constitute the balance (11.6%), have a mixture of those listed above, or are classified as "Rugged Mountains" which have no soil.
The above soil orders in sequence of increasing degree of development are Entisols, Inceptisols, Aridisols, Mollisols, Alfisols, Spodosols, Ultisols, and Oxisols. Histosols and Vertisols may appear in any of the above at any time during their development.
The soil suborders within an order are differentiated on the basis of soil properties and horizons which depend on soil moisture and temperature. Forty-seven suborders are recognized in the United States.
The soil great group category is a subdivision of a suborder in which the kind and sequence of soil horizons distinguish one soil from another. About 185 great groups are recognized in the United States. Horizons marked by clay, iron, humus and hard pans and soil features such as the expansion-contraction of clays (that produce self-mixing provided by clay), temperature, and marked quantities of various salts are used as distinguishing features.
The great group categories are divided into three kinds of soil subgroups: typic, intergrade and extragrade. A typic subgroup represents the basic or 'typical' concept of the great group to which the described subgroup belongs. An intergrade subgroup describes the properties that suggest how it grades towards (is similar to) soils of other soil great groups, suborders or orders. These properties are not developed or expressed well enough to cause the soil to be included within the great group towards which they grade, but suggest similarities. Extragrade features are aberrant properties which prevent that soil from being included in another soil classification. About 1,000 soil subgroups are defined in the United States.
A soil family category is a group of soils within a subgroup and describes the physical and chemical properties which affect the response of soil to agricultural management and engineering applications. The principal characteristics used to differentiate soil families include texture, mineralogy, pH, permeability, structure, consistency, the locale's precipitation pattern, and soil temperature. For some soils the criteria also specify the percentage of silt, sand and coarse fragments such as gravel, cobbles and rocks. About 4,500 soil families are recognised in the United States.
A family may contain several soil series which describe the physical location using the name of a prominent physical feature such as a river or town near where the soil sample was taken. An example would be Merrimac for the Merrimack River in New Hampshire, USA. More than 14,000 soil series are recognised in the United States. This permits very specific descriptions of soils.
A soil phase of series, originally called 'soil type' describes the soil surface texture, slope, stoniness, saltiness, erosion, and other conditions.
Soil is used in agriculture, where it serves as the anchor and primary nutrient base for plants; however, as demonstrated by hydroponics, it is not essential to plant growth if the soil-contained nutrients can be dissolved in a solution. The types of soil and available moisture determine the species of plants that can be cultivated.
Soil material is also a critical component in the mining, construction and landscape development industries. Soil serves as a foundation for most construction projects. The movement of massive volumes of soil can be involved in surface mining, road building and dam construction. Earth sheltering is the architectural practice of using soil for external thermal mass against building walls.
Soil resources are critical to the environment, as well as to food and fibre production. Soil provides minerals and water to plants. Soil absorbs rainwater and releases it later, thus preventing floods and drought. Soil cleans water as it percolates through it. Soil is the habitat for many organisms: the major part of known and unknown biodiversity is in the soil, in the form of invertebrates (earthworms, woodlice, millipedes, centipedes, snails, slugs, mites, springtails, enchytraeids, nematodes, protists), bacteria, archaea, fungi and algae; and most organisms living above ground have part of them (plants) or spend part of their life cycle (insects) below-ground. Above-ground and below-ground biodiversities are tightly interconnected, making soil protection of paramount importance for any restoration or conservation plan.
The biological component of soil is an extremely important carbon sink since about 57% of the biotic content is carbon. Even on desert crusts, cyanobacteria, lichens and mosses capture and sequester a significant amount of carbon by photosynthesis. Poor farming and grazing methods have degraded soils and released much of this sequestered carbon to the atmosphere. Restoring the world's soils could offset some of the huge increase in greenhouse gases causing global warming, while improving crop yields and reducing water needs.
Waste management often has a soil component. Septic drain fields treat septic tank effluent using aerobic soil processes. Landfills use soil for daily cover. Land application of waste water relies on soil biology to aerobically treat BOD.
Geophagy is the practice of eating soil-like substances. Both animals and human cultures occasionally consume soil for medicinal, recreational, or religious purposes. It has been shown that some monkeys consume soil, together with their preferred food (tree foliage and fruits), in order to alleviate tannin toxicity.
Soils filter and purify water and affect its chemistry. Rain water and pooled water from ponds, lakes and rivers percolate through the soil horizons and the upper rock strata, thus becoming groundwater. Pests (viruses) and pollutants, such as persistent organic pollutants (chlorinated pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls), oils (hydrocarbons), heavy metals (lead, zinc, cadmium), and excess nutrients (nitrates, sulfates, phosphates) are filtered out by the soil. Soil organisms metabolise them or immobilise them in their biomass and necromass, thereby incorporating them into stable humus. The physical integrity of soil is also a prerequisite for avoiding landslides in rugged landscapes.
Land degradation refers to a human-induced or natural process which impairs the capacity of land to function. Soils are the critical component in land degradation when it involves acidification, contamination, desertification, erosion or salination.
While soil acidification is beneficial in the case of alkaline soils, it degrades land when it lowers crop productivity and increases soil vulnerability to contamination and erosion. Soils are often initially acid because their parent materials were acid and initially low in the basic cations (calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium). Acidification occurs when these elements are leached from the soil profile by rainfall or the by harvesting of forest or agricultural crops. Soil acidification is accelerated by the use of acid-forming nitrogenous fertilizers and by the effects of acid precipitation.
Soil contamination at low levels is often within soil's capacity to treat and assimilate waste material. Soil biota can treat waste by transforming it; soil colloids can adsorb waste material. Many waste treatment processes rely on this treatment capacity. Exceeding treatment capacity can damage soil biota and limit soil function. Derelict soils occur where industrial contamination or other development activity damages the soil to such a degree that the land cannot be used safely or productively. Remediation of derelict soil uses principles of geology, physics, chemistry and biology to degrade, attenuate, isolate or remove soil contaminants to restore soil functions and values. Techniques include leaching, air sparging, chemical amendments, phytoremediation, bioremediation and natural degradation.
Desertification is an environmental process of ecosystem degradation in arid and semi-arid regions, often caused by human activity. It is a common misconception that droughts cause desertification. Droughts are common in arid and semiarid lands. Well-managed lands can recover from drought when the rains return. Soil management tools include maintaining soil nutrient and organic matter levels, reduced tillage and increased cover. These practices help to control erosion and maintain productivity during periods when moisture is available. Continued land abuse during droughts, however, increases land degradation. Increased population and livestock pressure on marginal lands accelerates desertification.
Erosion of soil is caused by water, wind, ice, and movement in response to gravity. More than one kind of erosion can occur simultaneously. Erosion is distinguished from weathering, since erosion also transports eroded soil away from its place of origin (soil in transit may be described as sediment). Erosion is an intrinsic natural process, but in many places it is greatly increased by human activity, especially poor land use practices. These include agricultural activities which leave the soil bare during times of heavy rain or strong winds, overgrazing, deforestation, and improper construction activity. Improved management can limit erosion. Soil conservation techniques which are employed include changes of land use (such as replacing erosion-prone crops with grass or other soil-binding plants), changes to the timing or type of agricultural operations, terrace building, use of erosion-suppressing cover materials (including cover crops and other plants), limiting disturbance during construction, and avoiding construction during erosion-prone periods.
A serious and long-running water erosion problem occurs in China, on the middle reaches of the Yellow River and the upper reaches of the Yangtze River. From the Yellow River, over 1.6 billion tons of sediment flow each year into the ocean. The sediment originates primarily from water erosion (gully erosion) in the Loess Plateau region of northwest China.
Soil piping is a particular form of soil erosion that occurs below the soil surface. It causes levee and dam failure, as well as sink hole formation. Turbulent flow removes soil starting at the mouth of the seep flow and the subsoil erosion advances up-gradient. The term sand boil is used to describe the appearance of the discharging end of an active soil pipe.
Soil salination is the accumulation of free salts to such an extent that it leads to degradation of the agricultural value of soils and vegetation. Consequences include corrosion damage, reduced plant growth, erosion due to loss of plant cover and soil structure, and water quality problems due to sedimentation. Salination occurs due to a combination of natural and human-caused processes. Arid conditions favour salt accumulation. This is especially apparent when soil parent material is saline. Irrigation of arid lands is especially problematic. All irrigation water has some level of salinity. Irrigation, especially when it involves leakage from canals and overirrigation in the field, often raises the underlying water table. Rapid salination occurs when the land surface is within the capillary fringe of saline groundwater. Soil salinity control involves watertable control and flushing with higher levels of applied water in combination with tile drainage or another form of subsurface drainage.
Soils which contain high levels of particular clays, such as smectites, are often very fertile. For example, the smectite-rich clays of Thailand's Central Plains are among the most productive in the world.
Many farmers in tropical areas, however, struggle to retain organic matter in the soils they work. In recent years, for example, productivity has declined in the low-clay soils of northern Thailand. Farmers initially responded by adding organic matter from termite mounds, but this was unsustainable in the long-term. Scientists experimented with adding bentonite, one of the smectite family of clays, to the soil. In field trials, conducted by scientists from the International Water Management Institute in cooperation with Khon Kaen University and local farmers, this had the effect of helping retain water and nutrients. Supplementing the farmer's usual practice with a single application of 200 kg bentonite per rai (6.26 rai = 1 hectare) resulted in an average yield increase of 73%. More work showed that applying bentonite to degraded sandy soils reduced the risk of crop failure during drought years.
In 2008, three years after the initial trials, IWMI scientists conducted a survey among 250 farmers in northeast Thailand, half of whom had applied bentonite to their fields. The average improvement for those using the clay addition was 18% higher than for non-clay users. Using the clay had enabled some farmers to switch to growing vegetables, which need more fertile soil. This helped to increase their income. The researchers estimated that 200 farmers in northeast Thailand and 400 in Cambodia had adopted the use of clays, and that a further 20,000 farmers were introduced to the new technique.
If the soil is too high in clay, adding gypsum, washed river sand and organic matter will balance the composition. Adding organic matter (like ramial chipped wood for instance) to soil which is depleted in nutrients and too high in sand will boost its quality.
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