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What is soil?

The importance of soil

(a) Soil Shapes Human History
(b) Soil is a Life -Supporting Layer of Material
Chapter1 (c) Soil is a Medium for Plant Growth
(d) Agricultural Uses of Soil
(e) Nonagricultural Uses of Soil
(f) Soil Quality

Chapter 1
The importance of soil

Dr. Irshad ul Haq Bhat


(a) Soil Shapes Human History

The early human civilization started in areas with deltas and valleys
endowed with rich and fertile soil that enable agriculture for food
Early Chinese culture, began to develop 6,000 to 7,000 years ago on
plains of the Yellow River, where periodic flooding deposited fresh soil
for agriculture and canals could carry river water to fields for irrigation
Similarly, farming began to flourish some 10,000 years ago in the Mideast
along major rivers.
The Mesopotamia civilization in the Tigris Euphrates, the Nile valley, Hwang
Ho and Yang Tze Kiang in China and the Indus Valley are examples of these
civilizations which owed their origin to fertile soil.

The famous Greek historian

Herodotus left us his notes about the
dependence of Egypt on soil supplied
by flooding of the Nile.
In 340 BC., in The History of
Herodotus, he observed that black,
crumbly, silty river deposits were easy
to work and productivethat these
soils could produce plentiful food
with less toil. These soils, he noted,
were the foundation for Egyptian

Dust Bowl of the 1930s, caused by drought, soil misuse, and widespread wind
erosion, drove farmers out of several middle plains states.
(American and Canadain Prairie lands)
At its peak, severe wind erosion damaged some 150,000 square miles of
prairie farmland .

Soil and water resource problems also cross national borders,

sometimes in ways hard to imagine.

For instance, North and South America and Europe receive dust blown
over the Atlantic Ocean from desert lands of Africa. As soils of Africa
degrade, that movement of dust has been increasing, and it contains not
only soil particles, but also spores of plant diseases, chemicals such as
arsenic and pesticides, and even insects. More obviously, shortages of soil
and water resources cause conflicts and migration of refugees.

In the future, soil will become even more crucial. World population doubles
every 40 years, yet only about 7 percent of the earths surface is suitable for
agriculture. Of that land, some is being lost to degradation and urbanization.
Soil is a non-renewable resource within the time frame of a human
Many experts have noted that part of the rhythm of human history is the rise
and fall of cultures founded on the use, abuse, and final exhaustion of soil and
water resources.
Some once-productive land of the ancient Fertile Crescent, in modern-day
Iraq, now lies barren because of salts built up from centuries of irrigation
from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. But this is not simply a problem of the
past, but of today. Human society, indeed, most life is possible only because
earths crust is dusted with a bit of soil where we can grow food.

What is soil?
The unconsolidated mineral or organic material on the immediate surface of
earth that serves as natural medium for growth of land plants
The unconsolidated mineral or organic material on the surface of earth that
directly affects climate (including water and temperature effects) and macro
and microorganisms.
The "mixture of mineral and organic matter that is capable of supporting plant
life"; formed from weathered rock by the action of climate and living organisms
over time.
Soil Science society of America (SSSA)

Who cares about soil?

Pedologists see soil as natural bodies, the
properties of their horizons, and the
relationships among soils within a
Edaphologists(agronomists, botanists,
horticulturists, etc.) focus on soil as a
habitat for living things, especially plants
Ecologists focus on dynamics within soil
or as soil interacts with other entities

Soil is a Life-supporting Layer of Material

Soil is a very thin and often fragile
layer of life supporting material. The
earth, as, consists of a solid part (core,
mantle, and crust) and the atmosphere
surrounding it.
The continental crust, made of rock,
is about 50 miles thick, and the
atmosphere about 22 miles deep
(though there is no actual measurable
edge). Soil forms a very thin interface
between the two.
The atmosphere, crust, and soil
interact to provide plants and animals
with the resources they need

Living things need

(i) proper temperature
(ii) oxygen
(iii) water
(iv) carbon (the basic element of all living bodies), and other nutrients.
These factors are exchanged in the soil, usually in cycles that allow elements to
be recycled and stored rather than lost.

Plant roots grow best in certain soil temperature ranges.
Seed germination also depends on soil temperature; wheat seed, for example,
germinates between 40F and 50F, while sorghum needs temperatures above 80F.
Energy is also radiating away as light in a wavelength that humans cannot see. In the
same way, soil maintains temperatures for growing plants. On a larger scale, this heat
exchange influences air temperature, weather, and even global climate.
Plant roots and other soil organisms need oxygen and give off carbon dioxide as they
Some important soil bacteria need nitrogen gas as well.
These gases pass into and out of the soil to maintain proper amounts of each.
In this process of air exchange, soil also acts to filter and purify the earths

Water seldom stays in one place long, always being on its way to the next
stage of its cycle.
Water evaporates from land, lakes, and oceans and forms clouds in the
atmosphere. Rain falls from the clouds, moistens the soil, and fills streams and
Most of the water finally reaches the oceans, where evaporation begins the
cycle again.
Some water seeps deep into the ground where it is held as groundwater.
When moisture falls on the soil, however, some water is temporarily stored for
plant use. In the process, soil can also purify the water that lands on earths

Plant leaves collect sunlight to use the suns energy in the process known as
photosynthesis, which involves converting atmospheric carbon (carbon dioxide)
to biological carbon (simple sugars). In the process, light energy is converted to
chemical energy usable by plants and creatures that eat plants.
Some of the carbon is recycled directly back to the atmosphere by plant and
animal respiration, while other carbon is recycled by organic matter decay in the
soil. In this process, some carbon is retained in the soil as organic matter. Soil acts as
a vast carbon reserve keeping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, where it would
contribute to the greenhouse effect.

Plant nutrients (chemicals that a plant needs to grow) also cycle through the soil.
Nitrogen cycle and other mineral cycles.
Nitrogen comes entirely from the atmosphere, where it occurs as a gas, a
form that plants cannot use. Soil organisms convert gaseous nitrogen to forms
that plants can use.
Some nitrogen recycles as once-living material decays in the soil, while water
carries some nitrogen deeper into the ground. Some nitrogen returns to the air
when other microbes change it back to its original form.
Other nutrients are released from rocks in the earths crust when the rocks are
broken down by weather, plants, and other factors. These nutrients are
continuously reused by plants until some return deep into the ground by
leaching, get washed into the ocean, or are removed by cropping.

Cycling and exchange between atmosphere, crust and soil. The soil temporarily stores resources needed for plant growth.


Plants depends on soil because
and nutrients.
In deep soil, where roots grow freely, plants are firmly supported, or anchored,
so they can grow to reach for sunlight. When people grow plants in ways that
deprive plants of soil support, artificial support is often required.
Poorly anchored trees can even cause serious safety or economic issues, as
they may topple in windstorms and damage cars, buildings, or even land on

Soil supplies the water to plant through roots.
For each 1 Kg of dry matter produced by growth, plants obtain between
440 and 2,200 litres of water from the soil for photosynthesis, sap flow, and
other uses.

Plants release oxygen during photosynthesis, but consume it during
respiration. Underground, plant roots and soil organisms use up oxygen and
give off carbon dioxide.
As a result, soil air has less oxygen and more carbon dioxide than the
atmosphere. The resulting concentration gradients between soil and atmosphere
cause oxygen to diffuse into the soil and carbon dioxide to diffuse out.
In the absence of factors that limit it, this process, known as soil aeration,
exchanges soil and atmospheric air to maintain adequate oxygen for plant
Aeration varies according to soil condition. Saturated, or waterlogged soil,
which is completely soaked with water, is an example of a soil with poor
aeration. The oxygen content near the surface of a well-aerated soil rarely
drops below 20 percent, but may approach 0 in a saturated soil.

Soil air and aeration. Most of the gas in air and soil is nitrogen. Above the soil, air is
about 21 percent oxygen. In the soil respiration of living things replaces oxygen with
carbon dioxide. Aeration is the process by which carbon dioxide and oxygen are


Humans depends on soil
To grow food,
Ornamental plants,

Cropland is land on which soil is worked and crops are planted, cared for, and
Worldwide, the greatest acreage of cropland is devoted to annual cropsthose
planted and harvested within one growing season. Annual crops include
agronomic products such as corn and soybeans, fibre plants such as cotton, and
horticultural crops such as vegetables.
Annuals require yearly soil preparation. This activity gives growers a chance
each year to control weeds and to work fertilizer and organic matter into the soil.
Because the soil surface is bare much of the time, growers must be careful to
keep soil from washing away.
Perennial horticultural crops include fruits, nuts, and nursery stock. Crops stay
in the ground for 3 to as many as 20 years. Many crops are clean-cultivated to
keep the ground bare and weed-free, while others are grown on sod or other soil

Perennial forages, such as alfalfa, are in the ground for a few years. They
may be harvested as hay to feed animals, or be used for grazing.
These crops cover the soil completely and so keep the soil from washing
away. Because the soil is not worked each year, fertilization is different than
for annual crops.
Perennial crops also tend to build up and improve the soil, and are better
than annuals for maintaining or enriching soil organic matter.

Challenges to the grower of horticultural crops are controlling weeds, reducing

erosion, preventing soil compaction, and keeping organic matter levels stable.
Growers are also beginning to assume a new task: growing crops for fuels.
Farms are essentially large living solar energy collectors to produce food;
increasingly solar energy collected by crops will be converted to fuel.
These currently include corn for alcohol and soybeans for biodiesel, but as
biofuels develop, new plants from our native switch grass to willows may be
Besides that, in many locations wind turbines are being placed on farmland to
generate electricity.
The project to produce energy on farms can only succeed if there is a large net
energy yieldthat is, the energy produced greatly exceeds the energy consumed in
the process. Efforts to harvest fuel energy from farmland may have serious
implications for maintaining soil quality and management.

Grazing Land
Much land is grazed by cattle and sheep.

Foresters probably disturb soil the least, but soil management is still a
concern. When trees are harvested after many years growth, logging
equipment tears up the vegetative cover and compacts the soil.
Increased erosion results, and the soil is a less desirable medium for growth
of newly planted seedlings. Other concerns of forestry include choosing the
best trees for each soil type and ensuring good conditions for newly planted


Recreational uses of the soil surface are important. Sit in an urban park and you will see
children in the playground, softball teams on the field, and runners on jogging paths. Golf
courses parks, and camp grounds are examples of large areas used for recreation.
The design of recreational facilities is a specialized skill that requires knowledge of soil
properties. Sport-playing fields may be the most demanding of all soil uses. To grow turf
that withstands the punishment of football cleats or soccer shoes challenges even the best
of managers.
Soils in the best playing fields are highly engineered mixes of loam, specific sizes of
sand, and other ingredients. They may even include a plastic mesh to hold the soil
together. Fields generally have several soil layers, are carefully graded and drained, and
are well maintained.

Before constructing a home, laying a road, or installing sewer lines soils must
be tested and sometimes modified to make sure that they are suitable for
supporting the structure.
People know that structurally sound buildings depend not only on the builders
skill but also on the soil under the house.
Building foundations, for instance, crack if soil settles under the building. In
some towns, landscapers require an engineers service in designing retaining walls
to ensure that they hold firmly in the soil.
Civil engineers also need firm soils that settle little for the roadbeds of highways
and foundations of bridges.

Examples of important engineering properties include shrink-swell potential

and load-bearing capacity. Many soils swell when wet and shrink as they dry,
cracking walls, destroying foundations, and breaking or dislodging buried
pipes, like those of the sewer line being installed.
Soils high in clay or organic matter have low load-bearing capacity.
Foundations of buildings constructed on such soils may shift and crack.
Roads and other structures built on such soils may also have structural
problems. In 1989, San Francisco shook to a major earthquake that brought
down many buildingsmost located on a loose fill soil that could not
support structures when the earth began to shake.

Waste Disposal
Soil has long been used for waste disposal, sometimes with unfortunate
results. Treatment of human sanitary waste often relies on soil because it filters
out some of the material, while microorganisms break down organic portions
into less dangerous compounds. The common home septic drain field is an
One way for sewage treatment plants to handle their end products is to spread
them on soil. Sewage sludge may be useful to farmers as a source of nutrients and
organic matter, as long as possible harmful materials in the sludge are taken into
To avoid problems from sludge, its use is regulated by government agencies
and may not be legal in some localities.
Sanitary or especially hazardous waste landfills require soils that will not allow
hazardous materials to leach into the water table or run into neighbouring streams
or lakes.
The search for landfill sites often arouses conflict in a community. Many
people feel landfills cannot be entirely safe, and even those who agree that
landfills are necessary do not want them nearby.

Building Materials
Before long-distance shipping of building materials became practical, people
built their homes with locally available materials, including soil.
Early settlers in the Great Plains built huts out of sod, a thick carpet of grass,
its roots, and soil.
Adobe, a sun baked mixture of three parts sandy soil to one part clay soil,
has been used as a building material for thousands of years and continues to be
used in the American Southwest.
Modern applications of soils are being developed in the search for energyefficient housing. Buildings can be built underground, into hillsides, or even
with soil piled over them. These earth-sheltered buildings are warm in winter
and cool in summer, lowering both heating and cooling costs. A few homes
have been built of packed earthen walls, constructed by tamping earth into
erected forms.

Soil quality, also called soil health, is the capacity of a specific soil to provide needed
functions for human or natural ecosystems over the long term. That is, it can sustain plant
and animal growth and productivity, maintain air and water quality, and support human
health. Quality soil helps keep a forest healthy and grows excellent crops or attractive

Soil degradation is the loss of soil quality.

Examples of soil degradation include:
Erosion of soil from the land
Pollution by industrial chemicals, oil spills, and many others
Conversion of dry grasslands to desert, called desertification
Changes in soil chemistry, such as severe changes in soil acidity
Increases in soil salt levels, or salinization
Loss of soil organic matter
A major goal of soil quality is to present ways to prevent such problems and to
conserve soil quality. While preserving soil quality involves understanding basic
soil processes and management, it also includes specific practices that preserve
our soil and water resources while being practical and profitable for a soil user.
We call these practices Best Management Practices, or BMPs. Use of these
BMPs is part of being a good citizen for those who use soil, and the population
of every nation has the right to expect its soil users to understand the soil, to
follow BMPs, and to stay abreast of new methods for soil quality preservation.