The Soil

Physical Properties of the Soil

Soils are named and classified based on their horizons. The soil profile has four distinct layers: 1) O horizon; 2) A horizon; 3) B horizon, or subsoil; and 4) C horizon, or soil base (Figure). The O horizon has freshly decomposing organic matter—humus—at its surface, with decomposed vegetation at its base. Humus enriches the soil with nutrients and enhances soil moisture retention. Topsoil—the top layer of soil—is usually two to three inches deep, but this depth can vary considerably. For instance, river deltas like the Mississippi River delta have deep layers of topsoil. Topsoil is rich in organic material; microbial processes occur there, and it is the “workhorse” of plant production. The A horizon consists of a mixture of organic material with inorganic products of weathering, and it is therefore the beginning of true mineral soil. This horizon is typically darkly colored because of the presence of organic matter. In this area, rainwater percolates through the soil and carries materials from the surface. The B horizon is an accumulation of mostly fine material that has moved downward, resulting in a dense layer in the soil. In some soils, the B horizon contains nodules or a layer of calcium carbonate. The C horizon, or soil base, includes the parent material, plus the organic and inorganic material that is broken down to form soil. The parent material may be either created in its natural place, or transported from elsewhere to its present location. Beneath the C horizon lies bedrock.

Art Connection

 Illustration shows a cross-section of soil layers, or horizons. The top layer, from zero to two inches, is the O horizon. The O horizon is a rich, deep brown color. From two to ten inches is the A horizon. This layer is slightly lighter in color than the O horizon, and extensive root systems are visible. From ten to thirty inches is the B horizon. The B horizon is reddish brown. Longer roots extend to the bottom of this layer. The C  horizon extends from 30 to 48 inches. This layer is rocky and devoid of roots.
This soil profile shows the different soil layers (O horizon, A horizon, B horizon, and C horizon) found in typical soils. (credit: modification of work by USDA)

Which horizon is considered the topsoil, and which is considered the subsoil?

Some soils may have additional layers, or lack one of these layers. The thickness of the layers is also variable, and depends on the factors that influence soil formation. In general, immature soils may have O, A, and C horizons, whereas mature soils may display all of these, plus additional layers (Figure).

 In the photo, soil has been cut away to reveal the soil profile. The O horizon is at the soil surface and is a rich black color. The brown A horizon starts beneath the O horizon and extends to about two-and-a-half feet beneath the surface. The B horizon is reddish brown and extends from the bottom of the A horizon to about two feet deep. The C horizon extends from the bottom of the B horizon to the bottom of the photo at a depth of four feet. The C horizon is light brown and has a coarser consistency than the A or B horizons.
The San Joaquin soil profile has an O horizon, A horizon, B horizon, and C horizon. (credit: modification of work by USDA)

Career Connections

Soil ScientistA soil scientist studies the biological components, physical and chemical properties, distribution, formation, and morphology of soils. Soil scientists need to have a strong background in physical and life sciences, plus a foundation in mathematics. They may work for federal or state agencies, academia, or the private sector. Their work may involve collecting data, carrying out research, interpreting results, inspecting soils, conducting soil surveys, and recommending soil management programs.

 Photo shows a man standing next to a wall of soil in a pit that is as deep as he is tall.
This soil scientist is studying the horizons and composition of soil at a research site. (credit: USDA)

Many soil scientists work both in an office and in the field. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA): “a soil scientist needs good observation skills to analyze and determine the characteristics of different types of soils. Soil types are complex and the geographical areas a soil scientist may survey are varied. Aerial photos or various satellite images are often used to research the areas. Computer skills and geographic information systems (GIS) help the scientist to analyze the multiple facets of geomorphology, topography, vegetation, and climate to discover the patterns left on the landscape.”National Resources Conservation Service / United States Department of Agriculture. “Careers in Soil Science.” Soil scientists play a key role in understanding the soil’s past, analyzing present conditions, and making recommendations for future soil-related practices.