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The word “soil,” like many common words, has several meanings. In its traditional meaning, soil is the natural medium for the growth of land plants, whether or not it has discernible soil horizons. This meaning is still the common understanding of the word, and the greatest interest in soil is centered on this meaning. People consider soil important because it supports plants that supply food, fibers, drugs, andother wants of humans and because it filters water and recycles wastes. Soil covers the earth’s surface as a continuum, except on bare rock, in areas of perpetual frost or deep water, or on the bare ice of glaciers. In this sense, soil has a thickness that is determined by the rooting depth of plants.

About 1870, a new concept of soil was introduced by the Russian school led by Dokuchaiev (Glinka, 1927). Soils were conceived to be independent natural bodies, each with a unique morphology resulting from a unique combination of climate, living matter, earthy parent materials, relief, and age of landforms. The morphology of each soil, as expressed by a vertical section through the differing horizons, reflects the combined effects of the particular set of genetic factors responsible for its development.

This was a revolutionary concept. One did not need to depend wholly on inferences from the underlying rocks, the climate, or other environmental factors, considered singly or collectively; rather, the soil scientist could go directly to the soil itself and see the integrated expression of all these in its morphology. This concept made it not only possible but also necessary to consider all soil characteristics collectively, in terms of a complete, integrated, natural body, rather than individually. Thus, the effect of any one characteristic or a difference in any one depends on the others in the combination. Experience has shown that no useful generalizations about single characteristics can be made for all soils. Characteristics are given weight according to the knowledge gained through research and experience in soil genesis and the responses of soil to management or manipulation. Both research in genesis and the responses of soils have vital roles, but they are themselves one step removed from the taxonomy of the soil, which is based on combinations of soil characteristics. In short, the new concept made pedology possible.

The Russian view of soils as independent natural bodies that have genetic horizons led to a concept of soil as the part of the earth’s crust that has properties reflecting the effects of local and regional soil-forming agents. The solum in that concept is the set of genetic horizons developed by soil-building forces, but the parent material beneath is nonsoil. This concept has limitations. If a solum is 1 or 2 m thick, there is little conflict between the concept of soil as solum and the concept of soil as the natural medium for the growth of terrestrial plants. If genetic horizons are thin or absent and unconsolidated parent material lies at or only a few centimeters below the surface, there is serious conflict between the concepts. Dokuchaiev realized this conflict and, despite the lack of horizons, included young alluvium and peat in his classification of soil.

Soil in this text is a natural body comprised of solids (minerals and organic matter), liquid, and gases that occurs on the land surface, occupies space, and is characterized by one or both of the following: horizons, or layers, that are distinguishable from the initial material as a result of additions, losses, transfers, and transformations of energy and matter or the ability to support rooted plants in a natural environment. This definition is expanded from the previous version of Soil Taxonomy to include soils in areas of Antarctica where pedogenesis occurs but where the climate is too harsh to support the higher plant forms.

The upper limit of soil is the boundary between soil and air, shallow water, live plants, or plant materials that have not begun to decompose. Areas are not considered to have soil if the surface is permanently covered by water too deep (typically more than 2.5 m) for the growth of rooted plants. The horizontal boundaries of soil are areas where the soil grades to deep water, barren areas, rock, or ice. In some places the separation between soil and nonsoil is so gradual that clear distinctions cannot be made.

The lower boundary that separates soil from the nonsoil underneath is most difficult to define. Soil consists of the horizons near the earth’s surface that, in contrast to the underlying parent material, have been altered by the interactions of climate, relief, and living organisms over time. Commonly, soil grades at its lower boundary to hard rock or to earthy materials virtually devoid of animals, roots, or other marks of biological activity. The lowest depth of biological activity, however, is difficult to discern and is often gradual. For purposes of classification, the lower boundary of soil is arbitrarily set at 200 cm. In soils where either biological activity or current pedogenic processes extend to depths greater than 200 cm, the lower limit of the soil for classification purposes is still 200 cm. In some instances the more weakly cemented bedrocks (paralithic materials, defined later) have been described and used to differentiate soil series (series control section, defined later), even though the paralithic materials below a paralithic contact are not considered soil in the true sense. In areas where soil has thin cemented horizons that are impermeable to roots, the soil extends as deep as the deepest cemented horizon, but not below 200 cm. For certain management goals, layers deeper than the lower boundary of the soil that is classified (200 cm) must also be described if they affect the content and movement of water and air or other interpretative concerns.

In the humid tropics, earthy materials may extend to a depth of many meters with no obvious changes below the upper 1 or 2 m, except for an occasional stone line. In many wet soils, gleyed soil material may begin a few centimeters below the surface and, in some areas, continue down for several meters apparently unchanged with increasing depth. The latter condition can arise through the gradual filling of a wet basin in which the A horizon is gradually added to the surface and becomes gleyed beneath. Finally, the A horizon rests on a thick mass of gleyed material that may be relatively uniform. In both of these situations, there is no alternative but to set the lower limit of soil at the arbitrary limit of 200 cm.

Soil, as defined in this text, does not need to have discernible horizons, although the presence or absence of horizons and their nature are of extreme importance in soil classification. Plants can be grown under glass in pots filled with earthy materials, such as peat or sand, or even in water. Under proper conditions all these media are productive for plants, but they are nonsoil here in the sense that they cannot be classified in the same system that is used for the soils of a survey area, county, or even nation. Plants even grow on trees, but trees are regarded as nonsoil.

Soil has many properties that fluctuate with the seasons. It may be alternately cold and warm or dry and moist. Biological activity is slowed or stopped if the soil becomes too cold or too dry. The soil receives flushes of organic matter when leaves fall or grasses die. Soil is not static. The pH, soluble salts, amount of organic matter and carbon-nitrogen ratio, numbers of micro­organisms, soil fauna, temperature, and moisture all change with the seasons as well as with more extended periods of time. Soil must be viewed from both the short-term and long-term perspective.

Soil science

Soil science is the study of soil as a natural resource on the surface of the Earth including soil formation, classification and mapping; physical, chemical, biological, and fertility properties of soils; and these properties in relation to the use and management of soils.

Sometimes terms which refer to branches of soil science, such as pedology (formation, chemistry, morphology and classification of soil) and edaphology (influence of soil on organisms, especially plants), are used as if synonymous with soil science. The diversity of names associated with this discipline is related to the various associations concerned. Indeed, engineers, agronomists, chemists, geologists, physical geographers, ecologists, biologists, microbiologists, sylviculturists, sanitarians, archaeologists, and specialists in regional planning, all contribute to further knowledge of soils and the advancement of the soil sciences.

Soil scientists have raised concerns about how to preserve soil and arable land in a world with a growing population, possible future water crisis, increasing per capita food consumption, and land degradation.


Vasily Dokuchaev, a Russian geologist, geographer and early soil scientist, is credited with identifying soil as a resource whose distinctness and complexity deserved to be separated conceptually from geology and crop production and treated as a whole.

Previously, soil had been considered a product of chemical transformations of rocks, a dead substrate from which plants derive nutritious elements. Soil and bedrock were in fact equated. Dokuchaev considers the soil as a natural body having its own genesis and its own history of development, a body with complex and multiform processes taking place within it. The soil is considered as different from bedrock. The latter becomes soil under the influence of a series of soil-formation factors (climate, vegetation, country, relief and age). According to him, soil should be called the "daily" or outward horizons of rocks regardless of the type; they are changed naturally by the common effect of water, air and various kinds of living and dead organisms.

A 1914 encyclopedic definition: "the different forms of earth on the surface of the rocks, formed by the breaking down or weathering of rocks". serves to illustrate the historic view of soil which persisted from the 19th century. Dokuchaev's late 19th century soil concept developed in the 20th century to one of soil as earthy material that has been altered by living processes. A corollary concept is that soil without a living component is simply a part of earth's outer layer.

Further refinement of the soil concept is occurring in view of an appreciation of energy transport and transformation within soil. The term is popularly applied to the material on the surface of the Earth's moon and Mars, a usage acceptable within a portion of the scientific community. Accurate to this modern understanding of soil is Nikiforoff's 1959 definition of soil as the "excited skin of the sub aerial part of the earth's crust".

Fields of study

Soil occupies the pedosphere, one of Earth's spheres that the geosciences use to organize the Earth conceptually. This is the conceptual perspective of pedology and edaphology, the two main branches of soil science. Pedology is the study of soil in its natural setting. Edaphology is the study of soil in relation to soil-dependent uses. Both branches apply a combination of soil physics, soil chemistry, and soil biology. Due to the numerous interactions between the biosphere, atmosphere and hydrosphere that are hosted within the pedosphere, more integrated, less soil-centric concepts are also valuable. Many concepts essential to understanding soil come from individuals not identifiable strictly as soil scientists. This highlights the interdisciplinary nature of soil concepts.


Dependence on and curiosity about soil, exploring the diversity and dynamics of this resource continues to yield fresh discoveries and insights. New avenues of soil research are compelled by a need to understand soil in the context of climate change, greenhouse gases, and carbon sequestration. Interest in maintaining the planet's biodiversity and in exploring past cultures has also stimulated renewed interest in achieving a more refined understanding of soil.


Most empirical knowledge of soil in nature comes from soil survey efforts. Soil survey, or soil mapping, is the process of determining the soil types or other properties of the soil cover over a landscape, and mapping them for others to understand and use. It relies heavily on distinguishing the individual influences of the five classic soil forming factors. This effort draws upon geomorphology, physical geography, and analysis of vegetation and land-use patterns. Primary data for the soil survey are acquired by field sampling and supported by remote sensing.

Soil survey, or soil mapping, is the process of classifying soil types and other soil properties in a given area and geo-encoding such information. It applies the principles of soil science, and draws heavily from geomorphology, theories of soil formation, physical geography, and analysis of vegetation and land use patterns. Primary data for the soil survey are acquired by field sampling and by remote sensing. Remote sensing principally uses aerial photography, but LiDAR and other digital techniques are steadily gaining in popularity. In the past, a soil scientist would take hard-copies of aerial photography, topo-sheets, and mapping keys into the field with them. Today, a growing number of soil scientists bring a ruggedized tablet computer and GPS into the field with them. The tablet may be loaded with digital aerial photos, LiDAR, topography, soil geodatabases, mapping keys, and more.

The term soil survey may also be used as a noun to describe the published results. In the United States, these surveys were once published in book form for individual counties by the National Cooperative Soil Survey. Today, soil surveys are no longer published in book form; they are published to the web and accessed on NRCS Web Soil Survey where a person can create a custom soil survey. This allows for rapid flow of the latest soil information to the user. In the past it could take years to publish a paper soil survey. Today it takes only moments for changes to go live to the public. Also, the most current soil survey data is made available at NRCS Soil Data Mart for high end GIS users such as professional consulting companies and universities.

The information in a soil survey can be used by farmers and ranchers to help determine whether a particular soil type is suited for crops or livestock and what type of soil management might be required. An architect or engineer might use the engineering properties of a soil to determine whether it is suitable for a certain type of construction. A homeowner may even use the information for maintaining or constructing their garden, yard, or home.

Soil survey components

Typical information in a published county soil survey includes the following:

a brief overview of the county's geography

a general soil map with a brief description of each of the major soil types found in the county along with their characteristics

detailed aerial photographs with specific soil types outlined and indexed

photographs of some of the typical soils found in the area

tables containing general information about the various soils such as total area, comparisons of production of typical crops and common range plants. They also include extensive interpretations for Land use planning such as limitations for dwellings with and without basements, shallow excavations, small commercial buildings, septic tank adsorptions, suitability for development, construction, and water management.

tables containing specific physical, chemical, and engineering properties such as soil depth, soil texture, particle size and distribution, plasticity, permeability, available water capacity, shrink-swell potential, corrosion properties, and erodibility.


Map of global soil regions from the USDA

As of 2006, the World Reference Base for Soil Resources, via its Land & Water Development division, is the pre-eminent soil classification system. It replaces the previous FAO soil classification.

The WRB borrows from modern soil classification concepts, including USDA soil taxonomy. The classification is based mainly on soil morphology as an expression pedogenesis. A major difference with USDA soil taxonomy is that soil climate is not part of the system, except insofar as climate influences soil profile characteristics.

Many other classification schemes exist, including vernacular systems. The structure in vernacular systems are either nominal, giving unique names to soils or landscapes, or descriptive, naming soils by their characteristics such as red, hot, fat, or sandy. Soils are distinguished by obvious characteristics, such as physical appearance (e.g., color, texture, landscape position), performance (e.g., production capability, flooding), and accompanying vegetation. A vernacular distinction familiar to many is classifying texture as heavy or light. Light soil content and better structure, take less effort to turn and cultivate. Contrary to popular belief, light soils do not weigh less than heavy soils on an air dry basis nor do they have more porosity.

Soil classification deals with the systematic categorization of soils based on distinguishing characteristics as well as criteria that dictate choices in use.


Soil classification is a dynamic subject, from the structure of the system itself, to the definitions of classes, and finally in the application in the field. Soil classification can be approached from the perspective of soil as a material and soil as a resource.


Engineers, typically geotechnical engineers, classify soils according to their engineering properties as they relate to use for foundation support or building material. Modern engineering classification systems are designed to allow an easy transition from field observations to basic predictions of soil engineering properties and behaviors.

The most common engineering classification system for soils in North America is the Unified Soil Classification System (USCS). The USCS has three major classification groups: (1) coarse-grained soils (e.g. sands and gravels); (2) fine-grained soils (e.g. silts and clays); and (3) highly organic soils (referred to as "peat"). The USCS further subdivides the three major soil classes for clarification.

Other engineering soil classification systems in the United States include the AASHTO Soil Classification System and the Modified Burmister (See biographical sketch of Prof. Donald Burmister).

A full geotechnical engineering soil description will also include other properties of the soil including color, in-situ moisture content, in-situ strength, and somewhat more detail about the material properties of the soil than is provided by the USCS code.

Soil science

Soil texture triangle showing the USDA classification system based on grain size

For soil resources, experience has shown that a natural system approach to classification, i.e. grouping soils by their intrinsic property (soil morphology), behaviour, or genesis, results in classes that can be interpreted for many diverse uses. Differing concepts of pedogenesis, and differences in the significance of morphological features to various land uses can affect the classification approach. Despite these differences, in a well-constructed system, classification criteria group similar concepts so that interpretations do not vary widely. This is in contrast to a technical system approach to soil classification, where soils are grouped according to their fitness for a specific use and their edaphic characteristics.

Natural system approaches to soil classification, such as the French Soil Reference System (Référentiel pédologique français) are based on presumed soil genesis. Systems have developed, such as USDA soil taxonomy and the World Reference Base for Soil Resources, which use taxonomic criteria involving soil morphology and laboratory tests to inform and refine hierarchical classes.

Another approach is numerical classification, also called ordination, where soil individuals are grouped by multivariate statistical methods such as cluster analysis. This produces natural groupings without requiring any inference about soil genesis.

In soil survey, as practiced in the United States, soil classification usually means criteria based on soil morphology in addition to characteristics developed during soil formation. Criteria are designed to guide choices in land use and soil management. As indicated, this is a hierarchical system that is a hybrid of both natural and objective criteria. USDA soil taxonomy provides the core criteria for differentiating soil map units. This is a substantial revision of the 1938 USDA soil taxonomy which was a strictly natural system. Soil taxonomy based soil map units are additionally sorted into classes based on technical classification systems. Land Capability Classes, hydric soil, and prime farmland are some examples.

In addition to scientific soil classification systems, there are also vernacular soil classification systems. Folk taxonomies have been used for millennia, while scientifically based systems are relatively recent developments.

Soil Classifications for OSHA

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires the classification of soils to protect workers from injury when working in excavations and trenches. OSHA uses 5 soil classifications:

Stable Rock

Type A - cohesive, plastic soils with unconfined compressive strength greater than 1.5 ton/sf

Type B - cohesive soils with unconfined compressive strength between 0.5 and 1.5 ton/sf

Type C - granular or cohesive soils with unconfined compressive strength less than 0.5 ton.sf

Type C60 - Each of the soil classifications has implications for the way the excavation must be made or the protections (shoring, shielding, etc.) that must be provided to protect workers from collapse of the excavated bank.

This section needs help, define C60 soils with reference. Believed to be Type C soils with groundwater present.

Areas of practice

Academically, soil scientists tend to be drawn to one of five areas of specialization: microbiology, pedology, edaphology, physics or chemistry. Yet the work specifics are very much dictated by the challenges facing our civilization's desire to sustain the land that supports it, and the distinctions between the sub-disciplines of soil science often blur in the process. Soil science professionals commonly stay current in soil chemistry, soil physics, soil microbiology, pedology, and applied soil science in related disciplines

One interesting effort drawing in soil scientists in the USA as of 2004 is the Soil Quality Initiative. Central to the Soil Quality Initiative is developing indices of soil health and then monitoring them in a way that gives us long term (decade-to-decade) feedback on our performance as stewards of the planet. The effort includes understanding the functions of soil microbiotic crusts and exploring the potential to sequester atmospheric carbon in soil organic matter. The concept of soil quality, however, has not been without its share of controversy and criticism, including critiques by Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug and World Food Prize Winner Pedro Sanchez.

A more traditional role for soil scientists has been to map soils. Most every area in the United States now has a published soil survey, which includes interpretive tables as to how soil properties support or limit activities and uses. An internationally accepted soil taxonomy allows uniform communication of soil characteristics and functions. National and international soil survey efforts have given the profession unique insights into landscape scale functions. The landscape functions that soil scientists are called upon to address in the field seem to fall roughly into six areas:

Land-based treatment of wastes

Identification and protection of environmentally critical areas

Management for optimum land productivity

Management for optimum water quality

Remediation and restoration of damaged lands

Sustainability of desired uses

There are also practical applications of soil science that might not be apparent from looking at a published soil survey.

Radiometric dating: specifically a knowledge of local pedology is used to date prior activity at the site

Altering soils to achieve new uses


Soil genesis


Soil morphology

Soil micromorphology

Soil classification

USDA soil taxonomy

Soil biology

Soil chemistry

Soil physics

Soil hydrology, hydropedology

Fields of application in soil science

Climate change

Ecosystem studies

Pedotransfer function

Soil fertility / Nutrient management

Soil management

Soil survey

Standard methods of analysis

Watershed and wetland studies

Related disciplines

Agricultural sciences


Environmental science

Physical geography



Waste management

Wetland science

Soil. Can you think of a substance that has had more meaning for humanity? The close bond that ancient civilizations had with the soil was expressed by the writer of Genesis in these words: And the Lord God formed Man of dust from the ground.

There has been, and is, a reverence for the ground or soil. Someone has said that "the fabric of human life is woven on earthen looms; everywhere it smells of clay." Even today, most of the world's people are tillers of the soil and use simple tools to produce their food and fiber. Thus, the concept of soil as a medium of plant growth was born in antiquity and remains as one of the most important concepts of soil today.

Factors of plant growth

The soil can be viewed as a mixture of mineral and organic particles of varying size and composition in regard to plant growth. The particles occupy about 50 percent of the soil's volume. The remaining soil volume, about 50 percent, is pore space, composed of pores of varying shapes and sizes. The pore spaces contain air and water and serve as channels for the movement of air and water. Pore spaces are used as runways for small animals and are avenues for the extension and growth of roots. Roots anchored in soil suppport plants and roots absorb water and nutrients. For good plant growth, the root-soil environment should be free of inhibitory factors. The three essential things that plants absorb from the soil and use are: (1) water that is mainly evaporated from plant leaves, (2) nutrients for nutrition, and (3) oxygen for root respiration.

Support for Plants

One of the most obvious functions of soil is to provide support for plants. Roots anchored in soil enable growing plants to remain upright. Plants grown by hydroponics (in liquid nutrient culture) are commonly supported on a wire framework.

Plants growing in water are supported by the buoyancy of the water. Some very sandy soils that are droughty and infertile provide plants with little else than support. Such soils, however, produce high-yielding crops when fertilized and frequently irrigated. There are soils in which the impenetrable nature of the subsoil, or the presence of watersaturated soil close to the soil surface, cause shallow rooting. Shallow-rooted trees are easily blown over by wind, resulting in windthrow.

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