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4.5: Characteristics of Soil

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    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.

    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.

    RCS Figure 1.png
    Figure 1. Peat is so rich in organic material, it can be burned for energy.

    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 1).

    RCS Figure 2.png
    Figure 2. Earthworms and insects are important residents of soils.

    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 2).


    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. 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.

    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.


    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.


    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.


    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.


    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 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.


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