#14 Weathering and Soils

Definition: Soil (photo of soil profile) = layer of sediment (coarse - fine), organic matter (living and dead, plants and animals, microscopic - large), water, and air that covers most of Earth's land surface. Soil is produced by weathering (chemical, physical, and biological breakdown of rock at or near Earth's surface), located on top of bedrock (geology) and capable of supporting plant growth (soil science). Soil must contain nutrients, e.g., P, N, and K. Illinois' state soil. Weathering = important part of rock cycle, where rock reacts to produce sediment and dissolved ions, both can eventually convert to sedimentary rock.

Lots of excellent information at web sites of the National Resources Conservation Service (US Dept. of Agriculture) and NASA.

General Reaction for Weathering of Silicate Rock

Unaltered Silicate (Parent) Rock + O2 + H2O + H2CO3 -->
Soil Minerals [Clay Minerals (smectite, kaolinite, Al-hydroxides) + Fe-oxides] + Dissolved ions (Na+, K+, Ca2+, SiO2(aq), HCO3-) + Quartz (unaffected)

I) Importance of studying weathering and soils (link #2, #3, #4, photo #1, #2)
















II) Weathering (physical, chemical, and biological changes in rock at Earth' s surface due to action of water, air, plants, and animals; results in formation of soil).

Why does weathering occur? Why do rocks react to form other minerals?


Does weathering occur on the Moon?


Types of Weathering

A) Physical (mechanical) = breaking rock into smaller pieces

Frost wedging - rock contains fractures (joints), which are forced apart when water freezes (~9% expansion); get talus slopes at base of cliffs in mountains due to frost wedging.

Action of plant roots and burrowing organisms (illustrations of frost and root wedging)

Exfoliation (pressure release) - when erosion of overlying rock exposes igneous pluton, pressure < and rock expands, causing sheet-like, concentric fractures (photo #2) that break away.

Growth of salt crystals in joints (similar to frost wedging)

Abrasion (photo illustrations) - rocks break as they are carried by rivers or wind.

B) Chemical = dissolution of rock, need liquid water, greatly enhanced by physical weathering. Why (illustration)?

Acid usually > dissolution (rainwater is naturally acidic due to presence of carbonic acid, weak acid from atmospheric CO2, CO2 + H2O --> H2CO3; produce more H2CO3 in soils from CO2 generated from oxidation of organic matter, Corg + O2 --> CO2).

Total Dissolution (solution) - entire mineral dissolves, e.g., halite or calcite (limestone caves) products = dissolved ions in solution

CaCO3 + H2CO3 --> Ca2+ + 2HCO3-

Partial Dissolution (hydrolysis) - part of mineral dissolves, most silicate mineral weathering, e.g., feldspar partly dissolves, producing dissolved ions and clay minerals.

2NaAlSi3O8 (Albite) + 2H2CO3 + 9H2O -->
Al2Si2O5(OH)4 (Kaolinite) + 2Na+ + 2HCO3- + 4H4SiO4

Oxidation - react with O2 usually dissolved in H2O, e.g., Fe-metal rusts to Fe-oxide.

Fe2SiO4 (Fayalite) + 0.5O2 + 2H2O --> Fe2O3 (hematite) + H4SiO4

Environmentally important oxidation reaction = weathering of sulfide minerals, e.g.,

2FeS2 (pyrite) + 7.5O2 + 4H2O --> Fe2O3 (hematite) + 4H2SO4 (sulfuric acid)

Producing sulfuric acid during sulfide mineral weathering = acid mine drainage, occurs in coal mines and sulfide ore deposits exposed to atmosphere (photo #1, #2). Above reaction is unusual weathering reaction because it produces acidity; most weathering reactions of silicates and carbonates consume, i.e., neutralize, acidity.

III) Factors controlling soil formation (state in terms of developing thick, mature soil) (Acronym = Clorpt)

Climate - rainfall and temperature (most important)

Warm and wet (rainforest) favors?
Hot and dry (desert) favors?
Very cold (polar) favors?

In addition, kinds of soil minerals produced depends on climate:

smectite (rich in soluble elements) forms in ~dry climates,

kaolinite (rich in ~insoluble elements) forms in warm and wet climates

bauxite (contains only very insoluble elements) forms in hot and very wet climates

Topography - steep slopes?

Valley bottoms and flat slopes?

Organics - > plants and animals
interdependence on climate


Time - > time (1,000's to 100,000's of years)

Bedrock/Mineral Composition - Different minerals (and rocks) weather at different rates. Goldich's weathering sequence = inverse of Bowen's reaction series.


Olivine and Ca-plagioclase feldspar weather much faster than K-feldspar, muscovite, and quartz (extremely stable).

Mafic igneous rock vs. silicic igneous rock?

In chemical terms, explain sequence of mineral "weatherability" in Table 4-5

IV) Soil Horizons - characteristic set of layers, collectively = soil profile.

Fig. 5.24a shows most common layers (horizons) for soil in temperate climate (sketch, photo).

Nearest surface = accumulation of organic matter (O horizon, photo). O (and A) horizon of fertile soil is usually teeming with life including bacteria (2 trillion per kg of soil), molds, fungi (400 million/kg), algae (50 million/kg), and insects (thousands/kg) including ants, worms, and spiders. Source of CO2 and organic acids for chemical weathering.

Below that = gray to black, coarse-grained layer (A horizon, photo 1, #2-above yellow line), contains both mineral and organic matter (humus - decomposed organic matter). A horizon = zone of leaching because downward percolating water has chemically dissolved minerals and physically carried fine minerals away from this layer; most intensively weathered zone and where plant roots are abundant.

Below that can be E (eluviated or leached) horizon (photo), which contains little to no organic matter. Leaching of soluble elements also occurs here.

Below that = B horizon (photo), which is dark brown, fine-grained layer rich in iron oxides and clay minerals, where some dissolved mineral matter and fine-grained minerals from above are deposited (zone of accumulation or illuviation). In arid climates, B horizon can be rich in calcite. Brief and heavy rains dissolve calcite from upper part of soil and transport it downward, eventually precipitates as white layer = caliche/Bk horizon (photo).

Below that = layer of fragmented, partially weathered (usually oxidized) bedrock (C horizon, photo).

Below that = unaltered bedrock (R horizon, photo).

Boundaries between horizons are usually gradual not abrupt and not all horizons may be present (need lots of time and other favorable conditions); test skills on identifying horizons on this page).

V) Soil Minerals vs. Depth - In humid climates, kaolinite dominates near surface, smectite dominates deeper in soil. Why?

Residual soil (horizons form over bedrock) vs. transported soil (form on sediment). Which type would tend to produce thicker soil?

VI) Soil Classification (link #2)

A) General Zonal Classification (function of rainfall and temperature)

pedalfer - soil rich in clay minerals and Fe-oxides (i.e., rich in Al and Fe); characteristic of humid, temperate regions e.g., eastern USA.

pedocal (aridosol) - soil rich in calcite, characteristic of dry regions, e.g., desert SW USA, evaporation concentrates salt and calcite, little leaching.

laterite (oxisol) - highly leached soils characteristic of hot and humid tropical zones, only most insoluble phases remain (Al- and Fe-oxides), usually brick red color; economic source of Al (bauxite); unproductive after deforestation most nutrients are in plants not in soil, dries to brick-like texture.

B) Soil taxonomy (link #2) - complex classification used by soil scientists, based on physical and chemical characteristics including horizons, nutrients, organics, color, and climate. Examples = mollisols (black, organic-rich prairie soils) and alfisols (forest soils); 12 soil orders; link to State Soils Photo Gallery.

VII) Selected Engineering Properties and Environmental Problems of Soils

A) Water content (wt. % water in soil) With > water content, soil behavior changes from solid (breaks into clumps) to plastic (moldable) to liquid (flows when slightly disturbed). Plastic limit (PL) = water content at solid/plastic transition; liquid limit (LL) = water content at plastic/liquid transition; plasticity index (PI) = difference between plastic and liquid limit (more useful).

What are expected PL, LL, and PI values for clay-rich soils?

Expected PL, LL, and PI values for sandy soils?

Low PI (<5%) = soil flows readily (liquefaction) and susceptible to landslides.

High PI (>35%) suggests possible swelling soils.

B) Soil Geohazard - Swelling soil (vertisol) (link #2) - contain smectite, which when wet can absorb large amounts of water between sheets and swell to many times its volume (up to 10 - 15 x, sketch), exerting great upward pressure (up to 5 - 10 tons/ft2). As it dries, it shrinks back to original volume (photo). Wet/dry cycles can be due to heavy rain, snow melt, lawn watering, etc. Shrink-swell action can damage walls (photo, sketch of how damage occurs), foundations (photo), and roads (photo #1, #2, #3). Average annual damage from swelling soils in USA is $2 - 6 billion, one of most costly natural hazards. Swelling soils are worst where there is sodium bentonite - layer of volcanic ash that has altered by reaction with groundwater to Na-rich smectite. Where do swelling soils occur? Montana, WY, Dakotas, CO (Denver), TX, and LA (USA map).
Mitigation = Avoid building on them; anchor structures deep within soil; improve drainage (prevent water buildup); keep trees away from foundations; treat with lime (Ca exchange); excavate; difficult to reduce damage for roads.

C) Compressibility - tendency of soil to < volume (settlement) when loaded; Highly compressible soils (organic and clay-rich soils) are problem for construction because compression (and building settlement) happens slowly and unevenly so walls and foundations crack. As soil water is removed, soils become more compressible, e.g., Leaning Tower of Pisa (photo).

D) Strength - Strength of soil determines its ability to support load before failing.

CASE HISTORY - Transcona grain elevator near Winnipeg, Manitoba built in 1913 by Canadian Pacific Railway. As elevator was filled, underlying soils failed and elevator rotated to 27 angle from vertical (photo). Structure was relatively undamaged and was restored upright (7 m deeper) (photo gallery). Soil = very weak and compressible (clay-rich).

E) Cohesion - degree to which soil sticks together, important to soil erodibility (and landslide development). Cohesion of cay-rich soils vs. sandy soils?

Soil Erosion (link #2)

A) Problem - Lose valuable soil resource (< fertility or complete loss) and create sediment pollution (damage to humans, plants, and animals from sediment deposition). Eroded soil deposited in rivers, lakes, reservoirs, causes > dredging, flooding (sediment fills river channel), treatment of surface drinking water supply (sediment removal), filling reservoir (small reservoirs fill in decades, large reservoirs in centuries), and negative impact on ecosystem (cloudy water = plants get no sunlight and fish cannot breathe).

CASE HISTORY - Lake Ballinger Dam, TX built in 1920 for drinking water supply, maximum water depth of 11 m; abandoned in 1952 because sediment filled it.

B) Factors controlling soil erosion (natural process, large potential human impact). Soil erosion rate = complex function of following interrelated parameters. Discuss which factor > soil erosion rate

soil properties - cohesion
rainfall (climate) and vegetation (erosion by water, erosion by wind) - desert vs. humid climate


wind -
slope angle -
land use (human impact) -

Map of Soil Vulnerability to Water Erosion, Map of Soil Vulnerability to Wind Erosion

C) How to < soil erosion?

Avoid disturbing (building on) problem areas; need soil surveying (mapping)
Good construction practice - build sediment traps (ditches or ponds to capture soil on-site); replant trees; build immediately and provide soil cover (e.g., straw) while building
Good crop planting practices - terracing (creating level areas in hill sides, #2), crop rotation, no till (photo)