Lesson Objectives

  • Discuss why soil is an important resource.
  • Describe how soil forms from existing rocks.
  • Describe the different textures and components of soil.
  • Draw and describe a soil profile.
  • Define three climate related soils: pedalfer, pedocal and laterite.

Introduction

Without mechanical and chemical weathering working to break down rock, there would not be any soil on Earth. It is unlikely that humans or most other creatures would be able to live on Earth without soil. Wood, paper, cotton, medicines, and even pure water need soil. So soil is a precious resource that must be carefully managed and cared for. Although soil is a renewable resource, its renewal takes a lot of time.

Characteristics and Importance of Soil

Even though soil is only a very thin layer on Earth’s surface over the solid rocks below, it is the where the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and lithosphere meet. Within the soil layer, important reactions between solid rock, liquid water, air, and living things take place. Soil is a complex mixture of different materials.
  • About half of most soils are inorganic materials, such as the products of weathered rock, including pebbles, sand, silt, and clay particles.
  • About half of all soils are organic materials, formed from the partial breakdown and decomposition of plants and animals. The organic materials are necessary for a soil to be fertile. The organic portion provides the nutrients, such as nitrogen, needed for strong plant growth.
  • In between the solid pieces, there are tiny spaces filled with air and water.
In some soils, the organic portion could be missing, as in desert sand. Or a soil could be completely organic, such as the materials that make up peat in a bog or swamp (Figure below).
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Peat is so rich in organic material, it can be burned for energy.
Soil is an ecosystem unto itself. In the spaces of soil, there are thousands or even millions of living organisms. Those organisms could be anything from earthworms, ants, bacteria, or fungi (Figure below).
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Earthworms and insects are important residents of soils.

Soil Formation

How well soil forms and what type of soil forms depends on several different factors, which are described below.

Climate

Scientists know that climate is the most important factor determining soil type because given enough time, different rock types in a given climate will produce a similar soil. Figure below. Even the same rock type in different climates will not produce the same type of soil. This is true because most rocks on Earth are made of the same eight elements and when the rock breaks down to become soil, those elements dominate.
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Climate is the most important factor in determining the type of soil that will form in a particular area.
The same factors that lead to increased weathering also lead to greater soil formation.
  • More rain equals more chemical reactions to weather minerals and rocks. Those reactions are most efficient in the top layers of the soil where the water is fresh and has not yet reacted with other materials.
  • Increased rainfall increases the amount of rock that is dissolved as well as the amount of material that is carried away by moving water. As materials are carried away, new surfaces are exposed, which also increases the rate of weathering.
  • Increased temperature increases the rate of chemical reactions, which also increases soil formation.
  • In warmer regions, plants and bacteria grow faster, which helps to weather material and produce soils. In tropical regions, where temperature and precipitation are consistently high, thick soils form. Arid regions have thin soils.
Soil type also influences the type of vegetation that can grow in the region. We can identify climate types by the types of plants that grow there.

Rock Type

The original rock is the source of the inorganic portion of the soil. The minerals that are present in the rock determine the composition of the material that is available to make soil. Soils may form in place or from material that has been moved.
  • Residual soils form in place. The underlying rock breaks down to form the layers of soil that reside above it. Only about one-third of the soils in the United States are residual.
  • Transported soils have been transported in from somewhere else. Sediments can be transported into an area by glaciers, wind, water, or gravity. Soils form from the loose particles that have been transported to a new location and deposited.

Slope

The steeper the slope, the less likely material will be able to stay in place to form soil. Material on a steep slope is likely to go downhill. Materials will accumulate and soil will form where land areas are flat or gently undulating.

Time

Soils thicken as the amount of time available for weathering increases. The longer the amount of time that soil remains in a particular area, the greater the degree of alteration.

Biological Activity

The partial decay of plant material and animal remains produces the organic material and nutrients in soil. In soil, decomposing organisms breakdown the complex organic molecules of plant matter and animal remains to form simpler inorganic molecules that are soluble in water. Decomposing organisms also create organic acids that increase the rate of weathering and soil formation. Bacteria in the soil change atmospheric nitrogen into nitrates.
The decayed remains of plant and animal life are called humus, which is an extremely important part of the soil. Humus coats the mineral grains. It binds them together into clumps that then hold the soil together, creating its structure. Humus increases the soil’s porosity and water holding capacity and helps to buffer rapid changes in soil acidity. Humus also helps the soil to hold its nutrients, increasing its fertility. Fertile soils are rich in nitrogen, contain a high percentage of organic materials, and are usually black or dark brown in color. Soils that are nitrogen poor and low in organic material might be gray or yellow or even red in color. Fertile soils are more easily cultivated.

Soil Texture and Composition

The inorganic portion of soil is made of many different size particles, and these different size particles are present in different proportions. The combination of these two factors determines some of the properties of the soil.
  • A permeable soil allows water to flow through it easily because the spaces between the inorganic particles are large and well connected. Sandy or silty soils are considered ‘light’ soils because they are permeable, water-draining types of soils.
  • Soils that have lots of very small spaces are water-holding soils. For example, when clay is present in a soil, the soil is heavier, holds together more tightly, and holds water.
  • When a soil contains a mixture of grain sizes, the soil is called a loam.
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A loam field.
When soil scientists want to precisely determine soil type, they measure the percentage of sand, silt, and clay. They plot this information on a triangular diagram, with each size particle at one corner (figure below). The soil type can then be determined from the location on the diagram. At the top, a soil would be clay; at the left corner, it would be sand, and at the right corner it would be silt. Soils in the lower middle with less than 50% clay are loams.
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Soil types by particle size.
Using the chart as a guide, what is the composition of a sandy clay loam? If you would like to determine soil type by feel, here’s a chart from the USDA to help you: http://soils.usda.gov/education/resources/lessons/texture/.

Soil Horizons and Profiles

A residual soil forms over many years, as mechanical and chemical weathering slowly change solid rock into soil. The development of a residual soil may go something like this.
  1. The bedrock fractures because of weathering from ice wedging or another physical process.
  2. Water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide seep into the cracks to cause chemical weathering.
  3. Plants, such as lichens or grasses, become established and produce biological weathering.
  4. Weathered material collects until there is soil.
  5. The soil develops soil horizons, as each layer becomes progressively altered. The greatest degree of weathering is in the top layer. Each successive, lower layer is altered just a little bit less. This is because the first place where water and air come in contact with the soil is at the top.
A cut in the side of a hillside shows each of the different layers of soil. All together, these are called a soil profile. (Figure below).
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Soil is an important resource. Each soil horizon is distinctly visible in this photograph.
The simplest soils have three horizons.

Topsoil

Called the A horizon, the topsoil is usually the darkest layer of the soil because it has the highest proportion of organic material. The topsoil is the region of most intense biological activity: insects, worms, and other animals burrow through it and plants stretch their roots down into it. Plant roots help to hold this layer of soil in place. In the topsoil, minerals may dissolve in the fresh water that moves through it to be carried to lower layers of the soil. Very small particles, such as clay, may also get carried to lower layers as water seeps down into the ground.

Subsoil

The B horizon or subsoil is where soluble minerals and clays accumulate. This layer is lighter brown and holds more water than the topsoil because of the presence of iron and clay minerals. There is less organic material. Figure below.
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A soil profile is the complete set of soil layers. Each layer is called a horizon.

C horizon

The C horizon is a layer of partially altered bedrock. There is some evidence of weathering in this layer, but pieces of the original rock are seen and can be identified.
Not all climate regions develop soils, and not all regions develop the same horizons. Some areas develop as many as five or six distinct layers, while others develop only very thin soils or perhaps no soils at all.

Types of Soils

Although soil scientists recognize thousands of types of soil – each with its own specific characteristics and name - let’s consider just three soil types. This will help you to understand some of the basic ideas about how climate produces a certain type of soil, but there are many exceptions to what we will learn right now.
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Just some of the thousands of soil types.

Pedalfer

Deciduous trees, the trees that lose their leaves each winter, need at least 65 cm of rain per year. These forests produce soils called pedalfers, which are common in many areas of the temperate, eastern part of the United States (Figure below). The word pedalfer comes from some of the elements that are commonly found in the soil. The Al in pedalfer is the chemical symbol of the element aluminum, and the Fe in pedalfer is the chemical symbol for iron. Pedalfers are usually a very fertile, dark brown or black soil. Not surprising, they are rich in aluminum clays and iron oxides. Because a great deal of rainfall is common in this climate, most of the soluble minerals dissolve and are carried away, leaving the less soluble clays and iron oxides behind.
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A pedalfer is the dark, fertile type of soil that will form in a forested region.

Pedocal

Pedocal soils form in drier, temperate areas where grasslands and brush are the usual types of vegetation (Figure below). The climates that form pedocals have less than 65 cm rainfall per year, so compared to pedalfers, there is less chemical weathering and less water to dissolve away soluble minerals so more soluble minerals are present and fewer clay minerals are produced. It is a drier region with less vegetation, so the soils have lower amounts of organic material and are less fertile.
A pedocal is named for the calcite enriched layer that forms. Water begins to move down through the soil layers, but before it gets very far, it begins to evaporate. Soluble minerals, like calcium carbonate, concentrate in a layer that marks the lowest place that water was able to reach. This layer is called caliche.
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A pedocal is the alkaline type of soil that forms in grassland regions.

Laterite

In tropical rainforests where it rains literally every day, laterite soils form (Figure below). In these hot, wet, tropical regions, intense chemical weathering strips the soils of their nutrients. There is practically no humus. All soluble minerals are removed from the soil and all plant nutrients are carried away. All that is left behind are the least soluble materials, like aluminum and iron oxides. These soils are often red in color from the iron oxides. Laterite soils bake as hard as a brick if they are exposed to the sun.
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A laterite is the type of thick, nutrient poor soil that forms in the rainforest.
Many climates types have not been mentioned here. Each produces a distinctive soil type that forms in the particular circumstances found there. Where there is less weathering, soils are thinner but soluble minerals may be present. Where there is intense weathering, soils may be thick but nutrient poor. Soil development takes a very long time, it may take hundreds or even thousands of years for a good fertile topsoil to form. Soil scientists estimate that in the very best soil-forming conditions, soil forms at a rate of about 1mm/year. In poor conditions, soil formation may take thousands of years!

Soil Conservation

Soil is only a renewable resource if it is carefully managed. Drought, insect plagues, or outbreaks of disease are natural cycles of events that can negatively impact ecosystems and the soil, but there are also many ways in which humans neglect or abuse this important resource.
One harmful practice is removing the vegetation that helps to hold soil in place. Sometimes just walking or riding your bike over the same place will kill the grass that normally grows there. Land is also deliberately cleared or deforested for wood. The loose soils then may be carried away by wind or running water. In many areas of the world, the rate of soil erosion is many times greater than the rate at which it is forming. Soils can also be contaminated if too much salt accumulates in the soil or where pollutants sink into the ground. There are many practices that can protect and preserve soil resources. Adding organic material to the soil in the form of plant or animal waste, such as compost or manure, increases the fertility of the soil and improves its ability to hold onto water and nutrients (Figure below). Inorganic fertilizer can also temporarily increase the fertility of a soil and may be less expensive or time consuming, but it does not provide the same long-term improvements as organic materials.
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Organic material can be added to soil to help increase its fertility.
Agricultural practices such as rotating crops, alternating the types of crops planted in each row, and planting nutrient rich cover crops all help to keep soil more fertile as it is used season after season. Planting trees as windbreaks, plowing along contours of the field, or building terraces into steeper slopes will all help to hold soil in place (Figure below). No-till or low-tillage farming helps to keep soil in place by disturbing the ground as little as possible when planting.
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Steep slopes can be terraced to make level planting areas and decrease surface water runoff and erosion.

Lesson Summary

  • Soil is an important resource. Life on Earth could not exist as it does today without soil.
  • The type of soil that forms depends mostly on climate and, to a lesser extent, on the original parent rock material and other factors.
  • Soil texture and composition, plus the amount of organic material in a soil, determine a soil's qualities and fertility.
  • Given enough time, rock is weathered to produce a layered soil, called a soil profile.
  • Each type of climate can ultimately produce a unique type of soil.

Review Questions

  1. Describe at least two ways in which soil is a living resource.
  2. Name two factors that influence soil formation.
  3. Which region of a soil profile reacts the most?
  4. Is the soil in your backyard most likely a residual soil or a transported soil? How could you check?
  5. Name several advantages to adding humus to the soil.
  6. What are three soil horizons? Describe the characteristics of each.
  7. Name three climate related soils. Describe the climate and vegetation that occurs in the area where each forms.
  8. Where would you choose to buy land for a farm if you wanted fertile soil and did not want to have to irrigate your crops?

Further Reading / Supplemental Links

Vocabulary

transported soil Soil that forms from weathered components transported to a different area. topsoil The A horizon; the most fertile layer with humus, plant roots and living organisms. soil profile The entire set of soil layers or horizons for a particular soil. soil horizon An individual layer of a complete soil profile; examples include A, B & C horizons. residual soil Soil that forms from the bedrock upon which it lies. permeable A material with interconnecting holes so that water can move through it easily. pedocal Less fertile soil that forms in drier, grassland regions. pedalfer Fertile, dark soil that forms in mid latitude, forested regions. organic From living organisms. loam Soil texture that forms from a roughly equal combination of sand, silt and clay. laterite Nutrient poor, red, tropical soil that forms in rainforest areas. inorganic Not from living organisms; the rock and mineral portion of the soil. humus The partially decayed remains of plants and animals; forms the organic portion of soil. C horizon The lowest layer of soil; partially altered bedrock. B horizon The subsoil; the zone where iron oxides and clay minerals accumulate.

Points to Consider

  • Why is soil such an important resource?
  • Would soil mature faster from unaltered bedrock or from transported materials?
  • If soil erosion is happening at a greater rate than new soil can form, what will eventually happen to the soil in that region?
  • Do you think there are pollutants that could not easily be removed from soil?