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Different soil horizons. Source Wikimedia Commons

An important factor influencing the productivity of our planet's various ecosystems is the nature of their soils. Soils are vital for the existence of many forms of life that have evolved on our planet. For example, soils provide vascular plants with a medium for growth and supply these organisms with most of their nutritional requirements. Further, the nutrient status of ecosystem's soils not only limit both plant growth, but also the productivity of consumer type organisms further down the food chain.

caption Figure 1: Most soils contain four basic components: mineral particles, water, air, and organic matter. Organic matter can be further sub-divided into humus, roots, and living organisms. The values given above are for an average soil. (Source:

Soil itself is very complex. It would be very wrong to think of soils as just a collection of fine mineral particles. Soil also contains air, water, dead organic matter, and various types of living organisms (Figure 1). The formation of a soil is influenced by organisms, climate, topography, parent material, and time. The following items describe some important features of a soil that help to distinguish it from mineral sediments.

Organic Activity

A mass of mineral particles alone do not constitute a true soil. True soils are influenced, modified, and supplemented by living organisms. Plants and animals aid in the development of a soil through the addition of organic matter. Fungi and bacteria decompose this organic matter into a semi-soluble chemical substance known as humus. Larger soil organisms, like earthworms, beetles, and termites, vertically redistribute this humus within the mineral matter found beneath the surface of a soil.

Humus is the biochemical substance that makes the upper layers of the soil become dark. It is colored dark brown to black. Humus is difficult to see in isolation because it binds with larger mineral and organic particles. Humus provides soil with a number of very important benefits:


  • It enhances a soil's ability to hold and store moisture.
  • It reduces the eluviation of soluble nutrients from the soil profile.
  • It is the primary source of carbon and nitrogen required by plants for their nutrition.
  • It improves soil structure which is necessary for plant growth.

Organic activity is usually profuse in the near surface layers of a soil. For instance, one cubic centimeter of soil can be the home to more than 1,000,000 bacteria. A hectare of pasture land in a humid mid-latitude climate can contain more than a million earthworms and several million insects. Earthworms and insects are extremely important because of their ability mix and aerate soil. Higher porosity, because of mixing and aeration, increases the movement of air and water from the soil surface to deeper layers where roots reside. Increasing air and water availablity to roots has a significant positive effect on plant productivity. Earthworms and insects also produce most of the humus found in a soil through the incomplete digestion of organic matter.


When water moves downward into the soil, it causes both mechanical and chemical translocations of material. The complete chemical removal of substances from the soil profile is known as leaching. Leached substances often end up in the groundwater zone and then travel by groundwater flow into water bodies like rivers, lakes, and oceans. Eluviation refers to the movement of fine mineral particles (like clay) or dissolved substances out of an upper layer in a soil profile. The deposition of fine mineral particles or dissolved substances in a lower soil layer is called illuviation.

Soil Texture

The texture of a soil refers to the size distribution of the mineral particles found in a representative sample of soil. Particles are normally grouped into three main classes: sand, silt, and clay. Table 1 describes the classification of soil particles according to size.

Table 1: Particle size ranges for sand, silt, and clay.
Type of Mineral Particle Size Range
Sand 2.0 - 0.06 millimeters
Silt 0.06 - 0.002 millimeters
Clay less than 0.002 millimeters


Clay is probably the most important type of mineral particle found in a soil. Despite their small size, clay particles have a very large surface area relative to their volume. This large surface is highly reactive and has the ability to attract and hold positively charged nutrient ions. These nutrients are available to plant roots for nutrition. Clay particles are also somewhat flexible and plastic because of their lattice-like design. This feature allows clay particles to absorb water and other substances into their structure.

Soil pH

Soils support a number of inorganic and organic chemical reactions. Many of these reactions are dependent on some particular soil chemical properties. One of the most important chemical properties influencing reactions in a soil is pH (Figure 2). Soil pH is primarily controlled by the concentration of free hydrogen ions in the soil matrix. Soils with a relatively large concentration of hydrogen ions tend to be acidic. Alkaline soils have a relatively low concentration of hydrogen ions. Hydrogen ions are made available to the soil matrix by the dissociation of water, by the activity of plant roots, and by many chemical weathering reactions.

Soil fertility is directly influenced by pH through the solubility of many nutrients. At a pH lower than 5.5, many nutrients become very soluble and are readily leached from the soil profile. At high pH, nutrients become insoluble and plants cannot readily extract them. Maximum soil fertility occurs in the range 6.0 to 7.2.


Soil Color

caption Figure 2: The pH scale. A value of 7.0 is considered neutral. Values higher than 7.0 are increasingly alkaline or basic. Values lower than 7.0 are increasingly acidic. The illustration above also describes the pH of some common substances. (Source:

Soils tend to have distinct variations in color both horizontally and vertically. The coloring of soils occurs because of a variety of factors. Soils of the humid tropics are generally red or yellow because of the oxidation of iron or aluminum, respectively. In the temperate grasslands, large additions of humus cause soils to be black. The heavy leaching of iron causes coniferous forest soils to be gray. High water tables in soils cause the reduction of iron, and these soils tend to have greenish and gray-blue hues. Organic matter colors the soil black. The combination of iron oxides and organic content gives many soil types a brown color. Other coloring materials sometimes present include white calcium carbonate, black manganese oxides, and black carbon compounds.

Soil Profiles

caption Figure 3: Typical layers found in a soil profile. (Source:

Most soils have a distinct profile or sequence of horizontal layers. Generally, these horizons result from the processes of chemical weathering, eluviation, illuviation, and organic decomposition. Up to five layers can be present in a typical soil: O, A, B, C, and R horizons (Figure 3).

The O horizon is the topmost layer of most soils. It is composed mainly of plant litter at various levels of decomposition and humus.

A horizon is found below the O layer. This layer is composed primarily of mineral particles and has two characteristics: it is the layer in which humus and other organic materials are mixed with mineral particles, and it is a zone of translocation from which eluviation has removed finer particles and soluble substances, both of which may be deposited at a lower layer. Thus the A horizon is dark in color and usually light in texture and porous. The A horizon is commonly differentiated into a darker upper horizon or organic accumulation, and a lower horizon showing loss of material by eluviation.

The B horizon is a mineral soil layer which is strongly influenced by illuviation. Consequently, this layer receives material eluviated from the A horizon. The B horizon also has a higher bulk density than the A horizon due to its enrichment of clay particles. The B horizon may be colored by oxides of iron and aluminum or by calcium carbonate illuviated from the A horizon.

The C horizon is composed of weathered parent material. The texture of this material can be quite variable with particles ranging in size from clay to boulders. The C horizon has also not been significantly influenced by the pedogenic processes, translocation, and/or organic modification.

The final layer in a typical soil profile is called the R horizon. This soil layer simply consists of unweathered bedrock.

Soil Pedogenesis

Pedogenesis can be defined as the process of soil development. Late in the 19th century, scientists Hilgard in the United States and the Russian Dukuchaev both suggested independently that pedogenesis was principally controlled by climate and vegetation. This idea was based on the observation that comparable soils developed in spatially separate areas when their climate and vegetation were similar. In the 1940s, Hans Jenny extended these ideas based on the observations of many subsequent studies examining the processes involved in the formation of soils. Jenny believed that the kinds of soils that develop in a particular area are largely determined by five interrelated factors: climate; living organisms; parent material; topography; and time (Figure 4).

Climate plays a very important role in the genesis of a soil. On the global scale, there is an obvious correlation between major soil types and the Köppen climatic classification systems major climatic types. At regional and local scales, climate becomes less important in soil formation. Instead, pedogenesis is more influenced by factors like parent material, topography, vegetation, and time. The two most important climatic variables influencing soil formation are temperature and moisture. Temperature has a direct influence on the weathering of bedrock to produce mineral particles. Rates of bedrock weathering generally increase with higher temperatures. Temperature also influences the activity of soil microorganisms, the frequency and magnitude of soil chemical reactions, and the rate of plant growth. Moisture levels in most soils are primarily controlled by the addition of water via precipitation minus the losses due to evapotranspiration. If additions of water from precipitation surpass losses from evapotranspiration, moisture levels in a soil tend to be high. If the water loss due to evapotranspiration exceeds inputs from precipitation, moisture levels in a soil tend to be low. High moisture availability in a soil promotes the weathering of bedrock and sediments, chemical reactions, and plant growth. The availability of moisture also has an influence on soil pH and the decomposition of organic matter.

caption Figure 4: The development of a soil is influenced by five interrelated factors: organisms, topography, time, parent material, and climate. (Source:

Figure 4: The development of a soil is influenced by five interrelated

factors: organisms, topography, time, parent material, and climate.


Living organisms have a role in a number of processes involved in pedogenesis including organic matter accumulation, profile mixing, and biogeochemical nutrient cycling. Under equilibrium conditions, vegetation and soil are closely linked with each other through nutrient cycling. The cycling of nitrogen and carbon in soils is almost completely controlled by the presence of animals and plants. Through litterfall and the process of decomposition, organisms add humus and nutrients to the soil which influences soil structure and fertility. Surface vegetation also protects the upper layers of a soil from erosion by way of binding the soils surface and reducing the speed of moving wind and water across the ground surface.

Parent material refers to the rock and mineral materials from which the soils develop. These materials can be derived from residual sediment due to the weathering of bedrock or from sediment transported into an area by way of the erosive forces of wind, water, or ice. Pedogenesis is often faster on transported sediments because the weathering of parent material usually takes a long period of time. The influence of parent material on pedogenesis is usually related to soil texture, soil chemistry, and nutrient cycling.

Topography generally modifies the development of soil on a local or regional scale. Pedogenesis is primarily influenced by topography's effect on microclimate and drainage. Soils developing on moderate to gentle slopes are often better drained than soils found at the bottom of valleys. Good drainage enhances an number of pedogenic processes of illuviation and eluviation that are responsible for the development of soil horizons. Under conditions of poor drainage, soils tend to be immature. Steep topographic gradients inhibit the development of soils because of erosion. Erosion can retard the development through the continued removal of surface sediments. Soil microclimate is also influenced by topography. In the Northern Hemisphere, south-facing slopes tend to be warmer and drier than north-facing slopes. This difference results in the soils of the two areas being different in terms of depth, texture, biological activity, and soil profile development.

Time influences the temporal consequences of all of the factors described above. Many soil processes become steady state overtime when a soil reaches maturity. Pedogenic processes in young soils are usually under active modification through negative and positive feedback mechanisms in attempt to achieve equilibrium.

Principal Pedogenic Processes

A large number of processes are responsible for the formation of soils. This fact is evident by the large number of different types of soils that have been classified by soil scientists. However, at the macro-scale we can suggest that there are five main principal pedogenic processes acting on soils. These processes are laterization, podzolization, calcification, salinization, and gleization.

Laterization is a pedogenic process common to soils found in tropical and subtropical environments. High temperatures and heavy precipitation result in the rapid weathering of rocks and minerals. Movements of large amounts of water through the soil cause eluviation and leaching to occur. Almost all of the byproducts of weathering, very simple small compounds or nutrient ions, are translocated out of the soil profile by leaching if not taken up by plants for nutrition. The two exceptions to this process are iron and aluminum compounds. Iron oxides give tropical soils their unique reddish coloring. Heavy leaching also causes these soils to have an acidic pH because of the net loss of base cations.

Podzolization is associated with humid cold mid-latitude climates and coniferous vegetation. Decomposition of coniferous litter and heavy summer precipitation create a soil solution that is strongly acidic. This acidic soil solution enhances the processes of eluviation and leaching causing the removal of soluble base cations and aluminum and iron compounds from the A horizon. This process creates a sub-layer in the A horizon that is white to gray in color and composed of silica sand.

Calcification occurs when evapotranspiration exceeds precipitation causing the upward movement of dissolved alkaline salts from the groundwater. At the same time, the movement of rain water causes a downward movement of the salts. The net result is the deposition of the translocated cations in the B horizon. In some cases, these deposits can form a hard layer called caliche. The most common substance involved in this process is calcium carbonate. Calcification is common in the prairie grasslands.

Salinization is a process that functions in the similar way to calcification. It differs from calcification in that the salt deposits occur at or very near the soil surface. Salinization also takes place in much drier climates.

Gleization is a pedogenic process associated with poor drainage. This process involves the accumulations of organic matter in the upper layers of the soil. In lower horizons, mineral layers are stained blue-gray because of the chemical reduction of iron.

Soil Classification

Soil Classification Systems have been developed to provide scientists and resource managers with generalized information about the nature of a soil found in a particular location. In general, environments that share comparable soil-forming factors produce similar types of soils. This phenomenon makes classification possible. Numerous classification systems are in use worldwide. We will examine the systems commonly used in the United States and Canada.

United States Soil Classification System

The first formal system of soil classification was introduced in the United States by Curtis F. Marbut in the 1930s. This system, however, had some serious limitations, and by the early 1950s the United States Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service) began the development of a new method of soil classification. The process of development of the new system took nearly a decade to complete. By 1960, the review process was completed and the Seventh Approximation Soil Classification System was introduced. Since 1960, this soil classification system has undergone numerous minor modifications and is now under the control of Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which is a branch of the Department of Agriculture. The current version of the system has six levels of classification in its hierarchical structure. The major divisions in this classification system, from general to specific, are: orders, suborders, great groups, subgroups, families, and series. At its lowest level of organization, the U.S. system of soil classification recognizes approximately 15,000 different soil series.

The most general category of the NRCS Soil Classification System recognizes eleven distinct soil orders: oxisols, aridsols, mollisols, alfisols, ultisols, spodsols, entisols, inceptisols, vertisols, histosols, and andisols.

Oxisols develop in tropical and subtropical latitudes that experience an environment with high precipitation and temperature. The profiles of oxisols contain mixtures of quartz, kaolin clay, iron and aluminum oxides, and organic matter. For the most part they have a nearly featureless soil profile without clearly marked horizons. The abundance of iron and aluminum oxides found in these soils results from strong chemical weathering and heavy leaching. Many oxisols contain laterite layers because of a seasonally fluctuating water table.

Aridsols are soils that develop in very dry environments. The main characteristic of this soil is poor and shallow soil horizon development. Aridsols also tend to be light-colored because of limited humus additions from vegetation. The hot climate under which these soils develop tends to restrict vegetation growth. Because of limited rain and high temperatures soil water tends to migrate in these soils in an upward direction. This condition causes the deposition of salts carried by the water at or near the ground surface because of evaporation. This soil process is called salinization.

Mollisols are soils common to grassland environments. In the United States most of the natural grasslands have been converted into agricultural fields for crop growth. Mollisols have a dark-colored surface horizon, tend to be base rich, and are quite fertile. The dark color of the A horizon is the result of humus enrichment from the decomposition of litterfall. Mollisols found in more arid environments often exhibit calcification.

Alfisols form under forest vegetation where the parent material has undergone significant weathering. These soils are quite widespread in their distribution and are found from southern Florida to northern Minnesota. The most distinguishing characteristics of this soil type are the illuviation of clay in the B horizon, moderate to high concentrations of base cations, and light-colored surface horizons.

Ultisols are soils common to the southeastern United States. This region receives high amounts of precipitation because of summer thunderstorms and the winter dominance of the mid-latitude cyclone. Warm temperatures and the abundant availability of moisture enhances the weathering process and increases the rate of leaching in these soils. Enhanced weathering causes mineral alteration and the dominance of iron and aluminum oxides. The presence of the iron oxides causes the A horizon of these soils to be stained red. Leaching causes these soils to have low quantities of base cations.

Spodsols are soils that develop under coniferous vegetation and as a result are modified by podzolization. Parent materials of these soils tend to be rich in sand. The litter of the coniferous vegetation is low in base cations and contributes to acid accumulations in the soil. In these soils, mixtures of organic matter and aluminum, with or without iron, accumulate in the B horizon. The A horizon of these soils normally has an eluvial layer that has the color of more or less quartz sand. Most spodosols have little silicate clay and only small quantities of humus in their A horizon.

Entisols are immature soils that lack the vertical development of horizons. These soils are often associated with recently deposited sediments from wind, water, or ice erosion. Given more time, these soils will develop into another soil type.

Inceptisols are young soils that are more developed than entisols. These soils are found in arctic tundra environments, glacial deposits, and relatively recent deposits of stream alluvium. Common characteristics of recognition include immature development of eluviation in the A horizon and illuviation in the B horizon, and evidence of the beginning of weathering processes on parent material sediments.

Vertisols are heavy clay soils that show significant expansion and contraction due to the presence or absence of moisture. Vertisols are common in areas that have shale parent material and heavy precipitation. The location of these soils in the United States is primarily found in Texas where they are used to grow cotton.

Histosols are organic soils that form in areas of poor drainage. Their profile consists of thick accumulations of organic matter at various stages of decomposition.

Andisols develop from volcanic parent materials. Volcanic deposits have a unique process of weathering that causes the accumulation of allophane and oxides of iron and aluminum in developing soils.

Canadian System of Soil Classification

caption Figure 5: Brunisolic Pine Landscape (Central British Columbia). (Source: Soil Landscapes of Canada, Version 2.2, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 1996)
caption Figure 6: Brunisol Profile. (Source: Soil Landscapes of Canada, Version 2.2, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 1996)
caption Figure 7: Chernozemic Landscape (Prairies). (Source: Soil Landscapes of Canada, Version 2.2, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 1996)
caption Figure 8: Chernozen Profile. (Source: Soil Landscapes of Canada, Version 2.2, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 1996)

Canada's first independent taxonomic system of soil classification was first introduced in 1955. Prior to 1955, systems of classification used in Canada were strongly based on methods being applied in the United States. However, the U.S. system was based on environmental conditions common to the United States. Canadian soil scientists required a new method of soil classification that focused on pedogenic processes in cool climatic environments.

Like the U.S. system, the Canadian System of Soil Classification differentiates soil types on the basis of measured properties of the profile and uses a hierarchical scheme to classify soils from general to specific. The most recent version of the classification system has five categories in its hierarchical structure. From general to specific, the major categories in this system are: orders, great groups, subgroups, families, and series. At its most general level, the Canadian System recognizes nine different soil orders:

  • Brunisol - is a normally immature soil commonly found under forested ecosystems. The most identifying trait of these soils is the presence of a B horizon that is brownish in color. The soils under the dry pine forests of south-central British Columbia are typically brunisols.
  • Chernozem - is a soil common to grassland ecosystems. This soil is dark in color (brown to black) and has an A horizon that is rich in organic matter. Chernozems are common in the Canadian prairies. The images below are from the eastern prairies where higher seasonal rainfalls produce black chernozemic soils.
  • Cryosol - is a high-latitudes soil common in the tundra. This soil has a layer of permafrost within one meter of the soil surface. The image in Figure 7 is of tundra landscape dominated by moss and lichen vegetation. The soil profile has a permanently frozen ice wedge beneath its surface.
  • Gleysol - is a soil found in an ecosystem that is frequently flooded or permanently waterlogged. Its soil horizons show the chemical signs of oxidation and reduction.
caption Figure 9: Tundra Cryosolic Landscape (N.W.T.). (Source: Soil Landscapes of Canada, Version 2.2, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 1996)
caption Figure 10: Organic Cryosol Profile. (Source: Soil Landscapes of Canada, Version 2.2, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 1996)
caption Figure 11: Flooded Gleysolic Landscape (Atlantic Coast). (Source: Soil Landscapes of Canada, Version 2.2, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 1996)
caption Figure 12: Gleysol Profile. (Source: Soil Landscapes of Canada, Version 2.2, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 1996)
  • Luvisol - is another type of soil that develops under forested conditions. This soil, however, has a calcareous parent material which results in a high pH and strong eluviation of clay from the A horizon.
  • Organic - this soil is mainly composed of organic matter in various stages of decomposition. Organic soils are common in fens and bogs. The profiles of these soils have an obvious absence of mineral soil particles.
caption Figure 13: Luvisolic Sub-Boreal Forest Landscape (Northern British Columbia). (Source: Soil Landscapes of Canada, Version 2.2, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 1996)
caption Figure 14: Luvisol Profile. (Source: Soil Landscapes of Canada, Version 2.2, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 1996)
caption Figure 15: Organic Soil Landscape (British Columbia). (Source: Soil Landscapes of Canada, Version 2.2, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 1996)
caption Figure 16: Organic Soil Profile. (Source: Soil Landscapes of Canada, Version 2.2, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 1996)
  • Podzol - is a soil commonly found under coniferous forests. Its main identifying traits are a poorly decomposed organic layer, an eluviated A horizon, and a B horizon with illuviated organic matter, aluminum, and iron. The forested regions of southern Ontario and the temperate rainforests of British Columbia normally have podzolic soils.
  • Regosol - is any young underdeveloped soil. Immature soils are common in geomorphically dynamic environments. Many mountain river valleys in British Columbia have floodplains with surface deposits that are less than 3,000 years old. The soils in these environments tend to be regosols.
caption Figure 17: Forested Podzolic Landscape (Ontario). (Source: Soil Landscapes of Canada, Version 2.2, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 1996)
caption Figure 18: Podzol Profile. (Source: Soil Landscapes of Canada, Version 2.2, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 1996)
caption Figure 19: Immature Regosolic Landscape (Floodplain British Columbia). (Source: Soil Landscapes of Canada, Version 2.2, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 1996)
caption Figure 20: Regosol Profile. (Source: Soil Landscapes of Canada, Version 2.2, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 1996)
  • Solonetzic - is a grassland soil where high levels of evapotranspiration cause the deposition of salts at or near the soil surface. Solonetzic soils are common in the dry regions of the prairies where evapotranspiration greatly exceeds precipitation input. The movement of water to the earth's surface because of capillary action, transpiration, and evaporation causes the deposition of salts when the water evaporates into the atmosphere.
caption Figure 21: Saline Solonetzic Landscape (Saskatchewan). (Source: Soil Landscapes of Canada, Version 2.2, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 1996)
caption Figure 22: Solonetzic Profile. (Source: Soil Landscapes of Canada, Version 2.2, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 1996)

Further Reading



Pidwirny, M. (2013). Soil. Retrieved from


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