One of the most important natural resources is soil. Like air and water, soil is necessary to life on Earth. Without it, plants could not grow and plant-eating animals could not live; meat-eating animals would also perish. Civilizations depend on the quality of their soil to grow their food and to serve as a living filter that purifies the wastes they produce. Only a thin layer of soil, called topsoil, can adequately support plant life. While along great rivers the soil favorable to plant growth may be hundreds of feet thick, in most places it extends down only about six inches. People must protect the fertility of this thin layer by preventing erosion and by replacing the food values that crops remove from the soil. Erosion can strip soil from unprotected land. The replacement of such losses is very slow. Nature takes from 500 to 1,000 years to make 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) of topsoil and from 2,000 to 5,000 years to replace a loss of 5 to 10 inches (13 to 25 centimeters). Therefore nations must learn to conserve their productive soil. (See also agriculture; conservation; land use.)
How Soil Is Formed
Soils are developed from mineral and organic matter and generally contain an active population of organisms. Unlike solid rock, soils are full of pores and channels that serve to conduct air and water. Each type of soil expresses characteristics of the parent material from which it developed and reflects changes imposed by its surrounding environment.
Five major influences on soil formation include the nature of the original parent material, weathering, climate, land surface features, and the action of plants and animals. These factors determine the physical and chemical properties of various kinds of soil.
Parent material is the basic mineral and organic material from which the soil is formed. There are three kinds of parent material: transported, residual, and organic. Transported material is by far the largest category; it is carried by wind, water, or glaciers from one site to another. Among the wind-transported materials are loessial deposits (composed of packed layers of fine, powdery soil), which give rise to many of the productive prairie soils and to dune soils formed by blowing sands in desert and coastal regions. Alluvial materials are deposited by rivers and provide rich productive deltas, floodplains, and terraces. Lacustrine deposits, formed in lakes, were later exposed by receding glaciers. Marine deposits occur along the margins of most oceans and gulfs. During the last Ice Age, huge continental ice sheets moved across much of Northern Europe, Asia, and North America. Their enormous weight crushed and transported material that later served as parent material for soil.
The residual parent material from which soil is formed is loose, slightly weathered rock called regolith. Residual formations settle in layers that range from fully weathered material at the top to unchanged parent material at the bottom. Organic parent material occurs when organic deposits accumulate in wet or cool regions. This material eventually develops into peat, or bog soil.
Temperature and precipitation are the main weathering and climatic factors that affect soil development. In arid regions where water is generally unavailable as a weathering force, temperature changes from day to night cause rocks to expand and contract, eventually cracking them into smaller and smaller particles. With little or no water to leach out minerals, the soils in arid regions are neutral or alkaline and have an accumulation of soluble salts. In areas of high precipitation, minerals are leached out of the soil at a rapid rate, rendering most tropical and semitropical soils highly acidic.
The greater the weathering processes at work, the finer the particles of soil that result. These particles range from gravel to sand, silty material, and, finally, clay. Clay formation is more rapid under conditions that favor weathering and leaching of minerals. Under extreme conditions, soluble elements such as potassium, nitrogen, calcium, and magnesium are removed, and the clay changes to koalinite and other highly oxidized clays.
Land surface features affect soil development by controlling the amount of erosion of topsoil and by influencing how water drains into the soil. The greater the slope in surface features, the longer soil takes to develop because steep slopes are more exposed to erosion that removes soil as it forms. On the other hand, depressions in the land that result in poor drainage and lack of adequate oxygen retard plant growth.
Plants and animals also help develop soil. When plants die, water leaches plant food from them and carries it down into the pore spaces. This organic matter, or humus, helps the soil to stay porous and crumbly. Plant roots help water to drain or percolate into the soil. In dry times capillary action draws water up the channels made by the roots, bringing with it material that has leached down. Plant rootlets can split rocks by exerting pressure after working into cracks and crevasses.
Soil is enriched by the wastes and decayed bodies of animals. Some animals—ants and earthworms, for example—help by mixing the soil. Many insects directly enrich the soil by fertilizing flowers, thus aiding the spread of plant life.
Composition of Soil
Soils are composed of mineral matter and organic matter and contain pore spaces filled with water or air and soluble nutrients. Organic matter serves as a binder for mineral particles, contributing to good soil structure and tilth, which refers to the behavior of soil under cultivation.
The organic matter content of mineral surface soils ranges from less than 0.5 percent in highly weathered, sandy soils to more than 6 percent in poorly drained prairie soils. Soil organic matter undergoes continual breakdown from fresh plant residue to relatively stable humus. Initially plant residues are attacked by soil animals such as insects or worms. As breakdown proceeds, soil microorganisms begin their work. Carbon is changed to carbon dioxide, and complex nitrogen compounds are transformed to soluble forms that plants can use. Humus is also an important storehouse of phosphorus and sulfur.
Soil water and gases fill the spaces between mineral and organic matter. A total pore space that is 50 percent air and 50 percent water offers an ideal growth medium for most plants. The amount of space that is filled with water and the extent to which the water is held within the soil depend on the degree of saturation. As the soil dries, water is held more tightly in thin films that coat the particles of soil, and this water is not available for use by plants.
Minerals and nutrients that have been dissolved in the soil water contribute to the soil solution that is the nutrient lifeline for plants. Plants get food not from solid particles but from water in which food elements are dissolved. As plants take these nutrients out of the soil solution, many are replaced by the continual release of minerals from the breakdown of parent material. The type and amount of minerals in the soil and the rate at which they dissolve into water help determine the fertility of the soil.
Soil air occupies all the pore spaces in soil that are not filled with water. This air contains several hundred times as much carbon dioxide as the atmosphere and has nearly 100 percent relative humidity. The exchange of atmospheric and soil air is reduced in soils that have a high water content (as in poorly drained soil) or that have a reduced pore space (as in finely textured clays).
The color, texture, and structure of different soils can reveal clues about soil development and the presence of soil water. Color, the most easily observed property, can be used to identify chemical characteristics of soil that are otherwise difficult to determine. The most common colors are combinations of red, yellow, black, brown, and gray; each color indicates different soil characteristics.
Colors of organic matter range from the brown of undecomposed peat to the rich black of humus. Black colors are generally found in the surface layer of soil. When located deeper, the dark colors may represent soil buried by sedimentation or a geologic deposit.
Red colors in soil, caused by the presence of iron oxide, are typically found in temperate region soils. Good drainage and warm temperatures encourage the formation of iron oxides. The process may require long periods of weathering and is characteristic of older soils. Brown and reddish brown represent a combination of organic matter and oxidized iron.
Yellow colors are the result of oxidized iron with attached water molecules, indicating that yellow soils are slightly wetter than red soils. When iron is completely isolated from oxygen, as it would be in a saturated soil, the soil color turns bluish gray. As rainfall fluctuates with the seasons, small pockets of varying colors called mottles are formed in the soil.
Gray and white colors may reveal the sandy parent material or may indicate the removal of iron and organic matter from soil minerals through leaching. In arid regions, such as deserts and coastal areas, white indicates soluble salts or carbonate accumulation in the soil.
Soil texture refers to the coarseness or fineness of mineral particles in the soil, while soil structure describes the physical arrangement of these particles. Texture and structure are important properties that help determine a soil’s ability to supply water and nutrients to plants.
Sand, silt, and clay, which comprise the soil particles that are less than 8/100 inch (2 millimeters) in diameter, are often referred to as soil separates. Stone, gravel, cobbles, and boulders may be part of a field soil, but, because they are larger than 2 millimeters, they are not included in the analysis of soil texture. Sand particles range from 2/1,000 to 8/100 inch (0.05 to 2 millimeters) and are gritty to the touch. Silt is as smooth as flour when dry and holds water well; these particles are smaller than sand but larger than clay. Clay particles are less than 8/100,000 inch (0.002 millimeter) in diameter and are the soil separates most involved in chemical reactions in the soil. Clay particles have 10,000 or more times the surface area of the same weight of sand. Since water, nutrients, and organic matter are all held on surfaces, soils low in clay cannot support much plant growth. Too much clay, however, can make the soil sticky, plastic, and slow to take in water or air.
Texture and Structure
Three broad textural classes—clays, sands, and loams—are used to describe soils. Clay soils are finely textured and are often referred to by farmers as heavy soils, meaning it is difficult to pull a plow through them. A clay soil must contain at least 35 to 40 percent clay-sized particles. Sandy and silty clays are included in this textural class. Sands are coarse-textured soils that may also include loamy sands containing some clay and silt. Loams represent roughly even mixtures of sand, silt, and clay. Loams can be further classified as sandy, silty, or claylike, depending on the element that most influences the properties of the soil. Most of the world’s prime agricultural soils are loam.
Soil separates and organic matter are often found together in natural soil structures called soil peds, or aggregates. Cycles of wetting and drying and freezing and thawing promote ped formation. For this reason farmers often leave their fields exposed in winter to mellow the soil. A well-developed soil structure can provide large pores and cracks that enhance water and air movement and root growth.
Soil structure is classified by the shape and size of soil peds. Granular structure is common under sod and refers to small balls of soil that easily separate. Blocky structure is common in older clay soil in humid regions. Well-developed prisms and columns can be found in some clayey subsoils.
The basic chemistry of soil includes colloidal structures, minerals, and macronutrients and micronutrients essential to plant life. Clay and organic matter are finely divided soil particles called colloids, which provide the site for most of the chemical reactions in soils. Colloids, though small, possess large surface areas and electrical charges that attract nutrients and water. Soil colloids bind nutrients and prevent them from being leached out of the soil.
Clay minerals are silicates arranged in microscopic sheets of aluminum and silica. The specific arrangement of these sheets and the type of elements within them determine the clay type. Many of these clays possess negative electrical charges that help retain elements such as potassium, calcium, and magnesium for plant use. These nutrients can move into the soil solution and be absorbed by plant roots.
Essential plant elements are those required for plant survival and growth. Three of these elements—carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen—are supplied by water and air, while 14 others, categorized as either macro- or micronutrients, must be supplied by the soil. Macronutrients include nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, known as primary elements, are commonly supplied in fertilizers. The other three are secondary elements and are added to the soil in the form of lime or, in the case of sulfur, as by-products of phosphorus fertilizers.
Micronutrients are also known as trace elements because plants need them in such small quantities. These elements include iron, manganese, copper, zinc, boron, chlorine, cobalt, and molybdenum. The availability of micronutrients is determined by how acidic or alkaline the soil is.
Plant nutrients such as nitrogen and sulfur exist mostly as negatively charged ions in the soil and therefore are not held by soil colloids. As a result, these elements are subject to leaching by water moving through the soil, especially in sandy soils. Leaching of nitrogen into the groundwater is a serious environmental problem in sandy irrigated regions.
Prime agricultural soils can store as much as 12 inches (30 centimeters) of available water, which is a great advantage in times of drought. Water is held in the soil by cohesion to other water molecules and by adhesion to colloid surfaces. Soils with smaller pores are more effective at holding water against the forces of gravity. Large pores are best at conducting water through the soil when water content is high.
When the ground is saturated, all the pores in a soil are filled with water. After about two days, water drains from the large pores, and the soil is in a condition known as field capacity. This is the maximum amount of water a soil can hold against the forces of gravity. Some water is held so tightly by adhesion that plants cannot pull it away. When plants cannot remove any more water from the soil, the field has reached what is called the wilting point. The amount of water between field capacity and the wilting point indicates the amount that is available to plants.
Soils are classified on the basis of soil depth, color, texture, structure, chemical composition, and the presence of certain diagnostic horizons. Diagnostic horizons are based on combinations of thickness, color, chemistry, or texture. Soils are classified by soil series names that indicate the location where the soil was first described and the surface soil texture. For example, Norfolk loamy sand identifies a soil first classified near Norfolk, Va., as sand with loam properties. Soil orders are subgroups of soils.
Several soil orders have been identified. Entisols are soils in recent geologic deposits that have little or no horizon development. Material in which soil development is just beginning is known as Inceptisol. Aridisols are found in desert regions and are characterized by light color, low organic matter, and accumulations of carbonates, gypsum, and salts. Vertisols are clay soils that develop cracks in the dry season, which allow surface material to fall in, inverting the normal layers of soil. Dark-colored prairie soils with thick topsoils are known as Mollisols; these are among the most productive agricultural soils in the world.
Alfisols are slightly more moist and acidic than Mollisols and border the wetter regions of grasslands. Ultisols exhibit clay accumulations in the subsoil and are named according to the weathering they undergo. These soils develop in warm regions with heavy rainfall. Highly oxidized soils of the humid tropics are called Oxisols; most minerals have been leached from these soils, leaving primarily iron and aluminum oxides. When limed and fertilized, however, these soils can be made extremely fertile. Histosols, or organic soils, contain at least 20 percent organic matter and can be productive for certain kinds of crops. The soils of the Florida Everglades are largely Histosols.
Soil Management and Research
The study of soil is carried out by several types of scientists. Pedologists study the soil as a natural body without necessarily focusing on its use. Soil chemists, physicists, mineralogists, and microbiologists conduct research on soil properties and behavior. Edaphologists study the soil as a medium for the production of crops.
Soil scientists attempt to find ways of managing the soil so that it will provide maximum crop yields without depleting this valuable resource. They recognize that the soil—as a living, dynamic medium—has many vital uses.
Soil scientists are also concerned with finding ways to minimize or prevent soil erosion and to increase the buildup of organic matter in soil. Research in farming methods has resulted in new ways to use contour plowing, terraced farming, rotation of crops, fertilization, and ground-cover plants to protect and enrich the soil in many parts of the world. The study of soils—their fertility and their capacity to filter waste products—will become increasingly important as the world demand for food rises and levels of pollution increase. Protection of the thin layer of the Earth’s surface called soil is vital to survival.
- MLA Style: “soil.” Britannica Student Library. Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2013.
- APA Style: soil. (2013). Britannica Student Library. Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica.
This animated film tells the reality of soil resources around the world, covering the issues of degradation, urbanization, land grabbing and overexploitation; the film offers options to make the way we manage our soils more sustainable.