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11.5: Factors Affecting Soil Development

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    Soil research has shown that soil profiles are influenced by five separate, yet interacting, factors: parent material, climate, topography, organisms, and time. Soil scientists call these the factors of soil formation. These factors give soil profiles their distinctive character.

    Parent Material

    Soil parent material is the material that soil develops from, and may be rock that has decomposed in place, or material that has been deposited by wind, water, or ice. The character and chemical composition of the parent material plays an important role in determining soil properties, especially during the early stages of development.

    parent_material_eolian_on_Agri_Food_Canada_small.jpg (14121 bytes)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Stabilized dunes are a form of Eolian (wind deposited) parent material (Source: Agriculture Agri-Food Canada)

    Soils developed on parent material that is coarse grained and composed of minerals resistant to weathering are likely to exhibit coarse grain texture. Fine grain soil develop where the parent material is composed of unstable minerals that readily weather.

    Parent material composition has a direct impact on soil chemistry and fertility. Parent materials rich in soluble ions-calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium, are easily dissolved in water and made available to plants. Limestone and basaltic lava both have a high content of soluble bases and produce fertile soil in humid climates. If parent materials are low in soluble ions, water moving through the soil removes the bases and substitutes them with hydrogen ions making the soil acidic and unsuitable for agriculture. Soils developed over sandstone are low in soluble bases and coarse in texture which facilitates leaching. Parent material influence on soil properties tends to decrease with time as it is altered and climate becomes more important.


    Soils tend to show a strong geographical correlation with climate, especially at the global scale. Energy and precipitation strongly influence physical and chemical reactions on parent material. Climate also determines vegetation cover which in turn influences soil development. Precipitation also affects horizon development factors like the translocation of dissolved ions through the soil. As time passes, climate tends to be a prime influence on soil properties while the influence of parent material is less.

    Climate, vegetation, and weathering

    Climate affects both vegetative production and the activity of organisms. Hot, dry desert regions have sparse vegetation and hence limited organic material available for the soil. The lack of precipitation inhibits chemical weathering leading to coarse textured soil in arid regions. Bacterial activity is limited by the cold temperatures in the tundra causing organic matter to build up. In the warm and wet tropics, bacterial activity proceeds at a rapid rate, thoroughly decomposing leaf litter. Under the lush tropical forest vegetation, available nutrients are rapidly taken back up by the trees. The high annual precipitation also flushes some organic material from the soil. These factors combine to create soils lacking much organic matter in their upper horizons.

    Climate, interacting with vegetation, also affects soil chemistry. Pine forests tend to dominate cool, humid climates. Decomposing pine needles in the presence of water creates a weak acid that strips soluble bases from the soil leaving it in an acidic state. Additionally, pine trees have low nutrient demands so few soil nutrients are taken back up by the trees to be later recycled by decaying needle litter. Broadleaf deciduous trees like oak and maple have higher nutrient demand and thus continually recycle soil nutrients keeping soils high in soluble bases.


    Topography has a significant impact on soil formation as it determines runoff of water, and its orientation affects microclimate which in turn affects vegetation. For soil to form, the parent material needs to lie relatively undisturbed so soil horizon processes can proceed. Water moving across the surface strips parent material away impeding soil development. Water erosion is more effective on steeper, unvegetated slopes.

    Effect on soil erosion

    Slope angle and length affects runoff generated when rain falls to the surface. Examine the diagram below showing the relationship between hill slope position, runoff, and erosion.

    hillslope_runoff_erosion.jpg (9390 bytes)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Hill slope position, runoff & erosion

    The amount of water on a particular hill slope segment is dependent on what falls from precipitation and what runs into it from an upslope hill slope segment. The hill slope in Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) has been divided into several segments and the amount of precipitation falling on each segment is the same. As water runs down slope, the water that has accumulated in segment A runs off adding to what falls into segment B by precipitation. The water in B runs into C, and C into D, and so on. The amount of water increases in the down slope direction as water is contributed of water from upslope segments. The velocity of the water increases as well as it moves towards the base of the slope. As a result, the amount and velocity of water, and hence rate of erosion increases as you near the base of the slope. Rather than infiltrating into the soil to promote weathering and soil development, water runs off. Erosion causes stripping of the soil thus preventing parent material to stay in place to develop into a soil. So we should expect to find weakly developed soil at the mid- and near the bottom of the slope.

    Effect on deposition and soil texture

    Water velocity not only determines the rate of erosion but the deposition of soil material in suspension too. Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\) shows the relationship between location and texture. Sites A, B, and C, are located progressively further from the base of a slope. A soil texture triangle is used to illustrate the variation in soil textures at the three sites.

    slope_texture.jpg (16903 bytes)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Location, Deposition and Soil Texture (after Marsh, 1984)

    As water empties from a mountain stream, its velocity starts to decrease. The largest size particles, like sand, are the first to drop out of suspension (Site A). Fine, clay size particles can be carried further away from the base of the slope before they are deposited. As a result, coarse textured soils tend to be found near the base of the mountain and fine textured soils are located further away (Site C).

    Microclimatic effects

    Hill slope orientation affects the microclimate of a place. As the slope of the surface increases, so does the local sun angle, up to a point. As the local sun angle increases, the intensity of heating increases, causing warmer surface temperatures and, likely, increased evaporation. Orientation of the hill slope is certainly important too. Those slopes which face into the sun receive more insolation than those facing away. Thus inclined surfaces facing into the sun tend to be warmer and drier, than flatter surfaces facing way from the sun. The microclimate also impact vegetation type.


    Organism, both plant and animal, play an important role in the development and composition of soil. Organisms add organic matter, aid decomposition, weathering and nutrient cycling. The richness and diversity of soil organisms and plant life that grows on the surface is, of course, also tied to climate.

    Nutrient cycling

    Biotic elements of the environment need life-sustaining nutrients that find their origin in the soil. Upon their death, organisms return these nutrients to the soil to be taken up again by other plants and animals. Hence there is a constant cycling of nutrients between organisms and soils. This cycling refreshes and maintains the nutrient status of soils. Without it, soluble nutrients would be leached from the soil, decreasing the soil's ability to support life.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Nutrient Cycling under broadleaf deciduous trees. (After Oberlander & Muller, 1987)

    The degree to which nutrients are cycled depends on the needs of the organism occupying a particular place. For instance, broadleaf, deciduous trees like oak and maple generally have high nutrient demand creating surface litter rich in nutrients when leaves die and fall to the forest floor. Decomposition of the litter releases the nutrients back into the soil for the tree to take back up. Thus soils under these kinds of forests tend to be high in soluble bases and nutrients.

    pine_nutrient_demand_small.jpg (18835 bytes)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Nutrient cycling under pine forests (After Oberlander & Muller, 1987)

    Pine trees generally have low nutrient demands. The decaying litter that falls to the forest floor is poor in nutrients. As a result, little cycling of soluble nutrients like calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium occurs and are thus leached creating an acidic soil environment.

    Organisms and weathering

    worms_Peru_A_Odoul_FAO_17449_small.jpg (7975 bytes)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Soil biota such as worms are important factor in soil development (Source: A. Odoul. FAO#17449 Used with permission)

    Soil organisms also affect weathering. The decomposition of pine needles creates a weak acid that can strip soluble ions from the soil. Burrowing animals create passage ways through the soil to help aerate and allow water to infiltrate into it. Burrowing animals help translocate materials and fertilize the soil at depth.


    As time passes, the weathering processes continue to act on soil parent material to break it down and decompose it. Horizon development processes continue to differentiate layers in the soil profile by their physical and chemical properties. As a result, older more mature soils have well-developed sequence of horizons, though some may undergo so much weathering and leaching that visually distinct layers may be hard to see. This is a notable characteristic of oxisols. Some geological processes keep soils from developing by constantly altering the surface and thus not allowing parent material to weather over a significant period of time. For instance, erosion of hillsides constantly removes material thus impeding soil development. Along the channels of rivers, new sediment is frequently deposited as the river spills out onto its floodplain during floods. The constant addition of new material restarts the soil development process.

    Climate interacts with time during the soil development process. Soil development proceeds much more rapidly in warm and wet climates thus reaching a mature status sooner. In cold climates, weathering is impeded and soil development takes much longer.

    Video: Watch "The Five Factors of Soil Formation" (Courtesy of UBC Virtual Soil Learning Resources)

    This page titled 11.5: Factors Affecting Soil Development is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Michael E. Ritter (The Physical Environment) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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