6.2 - Functions of Soil
Functions of Soil in the Global Ecosystem
Soils perform five key functions in the global ecosystem. Soil serves as a:
- medium for plant growth,
- regulator of water supplies,
- recycler of raw materials,
- habitat for soil organisms, and
- landscaping and engineering medium.
Soil Function: Medium for plant growth
As an anchor for plant roots and as a water holding tank for needed moisture, soil provides a hospitable place for a plant to take root. Some of the soil properties affecting plant growth include: soil texture (coarse of fine), aggregate size, porosity, aeration (permeability), and water holding capacity.
An important function of soil is to store and supply nutrients to plants. The ability to perform this function is referred to as soil fertility. The clay and organic matter (OM) content of a soil directly influence its fertility. Greater clay and OM content will generally lead to greater soil fertility. The soil in figure 2 has a dark brown to black color, indicating abundant OM accumulation, and a highly fertile soil.
Soil Function: Regulator of Water Supplies
As rain or snow falls upon the land, the soil is there to absorb and store the moisture for later use. This creates a pool of available water for plants and soil organisms to live on between precipitation or irrigation events. When soils are very wet, near saturation, water moves downward through the soil profile unless it is drawn back towards the surface by evaporation and plant transpiration.
The amount of water a soil can retain against the pull of gravity is called its water holding capacity (WHC). This property is close related to the number of very small mircro-pores present in a soil due to the effects of capillarity.
The rate of water movement into the soil (infiltration) is influenced by its texture, physical condition (soil structure and tilth), and the amount of vegetative cover on the soil surface. Coarse (sandy) soils allow rapid infiltration, but have less water storage ability, due to their generally large pore sizes. Fine textured soils have an abundance of micropores, allow them to retain a lot of water, but also causing a slow rate of water infiltration. Organic matter tends to increase the ability of all soils to retain water, and also increases infiltration rates of fine textured soils.
Soil Function: Recycler of raw materials
As a recycler of raw materials, soil performs one of its greatest functions in the global ecosystem. Decomposition of dead plants, animals, and organisms by soil flora and fauna (e.g., bacteria, fungi, and insects) transforms their remains into simpler mineral forms, which are then utilized by other living plants, animals, and microorganisms in their creation of new living tissues and soil humus.
Many factors influence the rate of decomposition of organic materials in soil. Major determinants of the rate of decomposition include the the soil physical environment, and the chemical make-up of the decomposing materials. The activity levels of decomposing organisms are greatly impacted by the amount of water and oxygen present, and by the soil temperature. The chemical makeup of a material, especially the amount of the element nitrogen present in it, has a major impact on the ‘digestibility’ of any material by soil organisms. More nitrogen in the material will usually result in a faster rate of decomposition.
Through the processes of decomposition and humus formation, soils have the capacity to store great quantities of atmospheric carbon and essential plant nutrients. This biologically active carbon can remain in soil organic matter for decades or even centuries. This temporary storage of carbon in the organic matter of soils and biomass is termed carbon sequestration. Soil organic carbon has been identified as one of the major factors in maintaining the balance of the global carbon cycle. Land management practices that influence soil organic matter levels have been extensively studied, and are often cited as having the potential to impact the occurrence of global climate change.
Soil Function: Habitat for soil organisms
Soil is teeming with living organisms of varied size. Ranging from large, easily visible plant roots and animals, to very small mites and insects, to microscopically small microorganisms (e.g. bacteria and fungi.) Microorganisms are the primary decomposers of the soil, and perform much of the work of transforming and recycling old, dead materials into the raw materials needed for growth of new plants and organisms.
Most living things on Earth require a few basic elements: air, food, water, and a place to live. The decomposers in soil have need of a suitable physical environment or ‘habitat’ to do their work. Water is necessary for the activities of all soil organisms, but they can exist in a dormant state for long periods when water is absent. Most living organisms are ’aerobic’ (requiring oxygen), including plant roots and microorganisms, however some have evolved to thrive when oxygen is absent (anaerobes). Greater soil porosity and a wide range of pore sizes (diameter) in the soil allows these organisms to ’breathe’ easier. Soil textural type has a great influence on the available habitat for soil organisms. Finer soils have a greater number of small ’micro-pores’ that provide habitat for microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. In addition to the need for suitable habitat, all soil organisms require some type of organic material to use as an energy and carbon source, that is to say they require food. An abundant supply of fresh organic materials will ensure a robust population of soil organisms.
Landscaping and engineering medium
Soils are the base material for roads, homes, buildings, and other structures set upon them, but the physical properties of different soil types are greatly variable. The properties of concern in engineering and construction applications include: bearing strength, compressibility, consistency, shear strength, and shrink-swell potential. These engineering variables are influenced by the most basic soil physical properties such as texture, structure, clay mineral type, and water content. Landscaping applications range in scale from bridge and roadway construction around highway interchanges to courtyards and greenspaces around commercial sites to the grading and lawns of residential housing developments. In all these instances, both the physical and ecological functions of soils must be considered.