BGR Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe



Coming soon: GIRAF 2011 Workshop

5. - 9. December 2011
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Organised by the IUGS-CGI and UNESCO
Hosting Organisation: SEAMIC


GIRAF: Geoscience InfoRmation AFrica. Logo



The pedosphere interfaces with the lithosphere, the hydrosphere, the atmosphere, and the biosphere. The term pedolith, used commonly to refer to the soil, translates to ground stone in the sense "fundamental stone". Soil consists of a solid phase of minerals and organic matter (the soil matrix), as well as a porous phase that holds gases (the soil atmosphere) and water (the soil solution). Accordingly, soil scientists can envisage soils as a three-state system of solids, liquids, and gases.

A typical soil is about 50% solids (45% mineral and 5% organic matter), and 50% voids (or pores) of which half is occupied by water and half by gas. The percent soil mineral and organic content can be treated as a constant (in the short term), while the percent soil water and gas content is considered highly variable whereby a rise in one is simultaneously balanced by a reduction in the other. The pore space allows for the infiltration and movement of air and water, both of which are critical for life existing in soil. Compaction, a common problem with soils, reduces this space, preventing air and water from reaching plant roots and soil organisms.

Most plant nutrients, with the exception of nitrogen, originate from the minerals that make up the soil parent material. Some nitrogen originates from rain as dilute nitric acid and ammonia, but most of the nitrogen is available in soils as a result of nitrogen fixation by bacteria. Once in the soil-plant system, most nutrients are recycled through living organisms, plant and microbial residues (soil organic matter), mineral-bound forms, and the soil solution. Both living microorganisms and soil organic matter are of critical importance to this recycling, and thereby to soil formation and soil fertility.[46] Microbial activity in soils may release nutrients from minerals or organic matter for use by plants and other microorganisms, sequester (incorporate) them into living cells, or cause their loss from the soil by volatilisation (loss to the atmosphere as gases) or leaching.

An example of the development of a soil would begin with the weathering of lava flow bedrock, which would produce the purely mineral-based parent material from which the soil texture forms. Soil development would proceed most rapidly from bare rock of recent flows in a warm climate, under heavy and frequent rainfall. Under such conditions, plants (in a first stage nitrogen-fixing lichens and cyanobacteria then epilithic higher plants) become established very quickly on basaltic lava, even though there is very little organic material. The plants are supported by the porous rock as it is filled with nutrient-bearing water that carries minerals dissolved from the rocks. Crevasses and pockets, local topography of the rocks, would hold fine materials and harbour plant roots. The developing plant roots are associated with mineral-weathering mycorrhizal fungi that assist in breaking up the porous lava, and by these means organic matter and a finer mineral soil accumulate with time. Such initial stages of soil development have been described on volcanoes, inselbergs, and glacial moraines.

The mineral material from which a soil forms is called parent material. Rock, whether its origin is igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic, is the source of all soil mineral materials and the origin of all plant nutrients with the exceptions of nitrogen, hydrogen and carbon. As the parent material is chemically and physically weathered, transported, deposited and precipitated, it is transformed into a soil.

Saprolite is a particular example of a residual soil formed from the transformation of granite, metamorphic and other types of bedrock into clay minerals. Often called [weathered granite], saprolite is the result of weathering processes that include: hydrolysis, chelation from organic compounds, hydration (the solution of minerals in water with resulting cation and anion pairs) and physical processes that include freezing and thawing. The mineralogical and chemical composition of the primary bedrock material, its physical features, including grain size and degree of consolidation, and the rate and type of weathering transforms the parent material into a different mineral. The texture, pH and mineral constituents of saprolite are inherited from its parent material. This process is also called arenization, resulting in the formation of sandy soils (granitic arenas), thanks to the much higher resistance of quartz compared to other mineral components of granite (micas, amphiboles, feldspars).

The topography, or relief, is characterized by the inclination (slope), elevation, and orientation of the terrain. Topography determines the rate of precipitation or runoff and rate of formation or erosion of the surface soil profile. The topographical setting may either hasten or retard the work of climatic forces.

In swales and depressions where runoff water tends to concentrate, the regolith is usually more deeply weathered and soil profile development is more advanced. However, in the lowest landscape positions, water may saturate the regolith to such a degree that drainage and aeration are restricted. Here, the weathering of some minerals and the decomposition of organic matter are retarded, while the loss of iron and manganese is accelerated. In such low-lying topography, special profile features characteristic of wetland soils may develop. Depressions allow the accumulation of water, minerals and organic matter and in the extreme, the resulting soils will be saline marshes or peat bogs. Intermediate topography affords the best conditions for the formation of an agriculturally productive soil.

Human activities widely influence soil formation. For example, it is believed that Native Americans regularly set fires to maintain several large areas of prairie grasslands in Indiana and Michigan, although climate and mammalian grazers (e.g. bisons) are also advocated to explain the maintenance of the Great Plains of North America. In more recent times, human destruction of natural vegetation and subsequent tillage of the soil for crop production has abruptly modified soil formation. Likewise, irrigating soil in an arid region drastically influences soil-forming factors, as does adding fertilizer and lime to soils of low fertility.

When bacteria feed on soluble forms of nitrogen (ammonium and nitrate), they temporarily sequester that nitrogen in their bodies in a process called immobilisation. At a later time when those bacteria die, their nitrogen may be released as ammonium by the processes of mineralisation.


Dr. Kristine Asch
Phone: +49-(0)511-643-3324
Fax: +49-(0)511-643-3782