Describing and Classifying Soils

The factors controlling soil formation vary greatly from place to place and from time to time, leading to an amazing variety of soil types.
These vertical differences, which usually become more pronounced as time passes, divide the soil into zones or layers known as horizons. If you were to dig a pit in soil, you would see that its walls are layered. Such a vertical section through all of the soil horizons constitutes the soil profile.

Soil horizons Idealized soil profile from a humid climate in the middle latitudes.

Figure presents an idealized view of a welldeveloped soil profile in which five horizons are identified. From the surface downward, they are designatedas O, A, E, B, and C. These five horizons are common to soils in temperate regions; not all soils have these five layers. The characteristics and extent of horizon development vary in different environments. Thus, different localities exhibit soil profiles that can contrast greatly with one another:
The O soil horizon consists largely of organic material, in contrast to the layers beneath it, which consist mainly of mineral matter. The upper portion of the O horizon is primarily plant litter, such as loose leaves and other organic debris that are still recognizable. By contrast, the lower portion of the O horizon is made up of partly decomposed organic matter (humus) in which plant structures can no longer be identified. In addition to plants, the O horizon is teeming with microscopic life, including bacteria, fungi, algae, and insects. All these organisms contribute oxygen, carbon dioxide, and organic acids to the developing soil.
• The A horizon is largely mineral matter, yet biological activity is high, and humus is generally present— up to 30 percent in some instances. Together the O and A horizons make up what is commonly called the topsoil.
• The E horizon is a light-colored layer that contains little organic material. As water percolates downward through this zone, finer particles are carried away.
This washing out of fine soil components is termed eluviation. Water percolating downward also dissolves soluble inorganic soil components and carries them to deeper zones. This depletion of soluble materials from the upper soil is termed leaching.
• The B horizon, or subsoil, is where much of the material removed from the E horizon by eluviation is deposited. Thus, the B horizon is often referred to as the zone of accumulation. The accumulation of the fine clay particles enhances this horizon’s ability to hold water. In extreme cases, clay accumulation can form a very compact, impermeable layer called hardpan.
• The O, A, E, and B horizons together constitute the solum, or “true soil.” It is in the solum that soilforming processes are active and that living roots and other plant and animal life are largely confined.
• The C horizon is characterized by partially altered parent material. Whereas the parent material is difficult to see in the O, A, E, and B horizons, it is easily identifiable in the C horizon. Although this material is undergoing changes that will eventually transform it into soil, it has not yet crossed the threshold that separates regolith from soil.
The characteristics and extent of development can vary greatly among soils in different environments (Figure).

Contrasting soil profiles Soil characteristics and development
vary greatly in different environments.

The boundaries between soil horizons may be sharp, or the horizons may blend gradually from one to another. Consequently, a well-developed soil profile indicates that environmental conditions have been relatively stable over an extended time span and that the soil is mature. By contrast, some soils lack horizons altogether. Such soils are called immature because soil building has been going on for only a short time. Immature soils are also characteristic of steep slopes, where erosion continually strips away the soil, preventing full development.

Classifying Soils

The great variety of soils on Earth makes it essential to devise some means of classifying the vast array of soil data. Establishing categories of items having certain important characteristics in common introduces order and simplicity, which not only aids comprehension and understanding but also facilitates analysis and explanation. Soil scientists in the United States have devised a system for classifying soils known as the Soil Taxonomy. It emphasizes the physical and chemical properties of the soil profile and is organized on the basis of observable soil characteristics. There are 6 hierarchical categories of classification, ranging from order, the broadest category, to series, the most specific category. The system recognizes 12 soil orders and more than 19,000 soil series. The names of the classification units are mostly combinations of Latin or Greek descriptive terms. For example, soils of the order aridosol (from the Latin aridus 5 dry and solum 5 soil) are characteristically dry soils in arid regions. Soils in the order inceptisol (from Latin inceptum 5 beginning and solum 5 soil) are soils with only the beginning, or inception, of profile development.

13 thoughts on “Describing and Classifying Soils

  1. Since this is an engineering geology posting I am surprised that there’s no discussion of the Unified Soil Classification System (USCS) as taught in soil mechanics. What you have described is the USDA system developed for agriculture. The USCS was developed by Arthur Casagrande for the construction of tarmacs in WWII and since then has become the soil classification system used in engineering and engineering geology.

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