Soils and Decomposition
Charles McClaugherty, University of Mount Union, Alliance, Ohio, USA
Björn Berg, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland
Published online: September 2011
Soils are dynamic, complex systems of inorganic, organic and biotic components that have the capacity to support plant life.
Soils are classified on the basis of their chemical and physical properties. These properties include texture, structure,
colour and the nature and properties of soil horizons. Soils are an important component of natural capital, providing for
food and fibre production and physical support of cultural infrastructure, but soils are degrading. Soils are the major site
for plant nutrient regeneration through the process of decomposition. Decomposition processes also generate long‐term soil
organic matter and play an important role in the global carbon cycle. Decomposition of organic matter in soils is accomplished
largely by microorganisms, often in association with animals. The rate and course of decomposition is influenced by climate,
organic matter composition and nutrient availability from the environment.
Soils are dynamic systems composed of organic, inorganic and living components.
Soils are classified according to measurable and observable properties, but there are many different classification schemes
around the world.
Key physical characteristics of soils are texture, bulk density and porosity all of which influence nutrient and water dynamics
in the soil.
Key chemical properties of soils include acidity (pH), cation exchange capacity (CEC), base saturation, organic matter content
and nutrient availability.
Soils are a slowly renewable natural resource that is being degraded worldwide due to erosion, desertification, salinisation
Decomposition of organic matter is regulated by climate and the nature and chemical composition of the organic matter.
Soil organisms, particularly microorganisms (fungi and bacteria) and animals, play a major role in the decomposition process.
Decomposition is important in regulating soil nutrient availability to plants.
Soils are an important reservoir for carbon in the global carbon cycle and sequester significant amounts of atmospheric carbon
Keywords: soil taxonomy; paedogenesis; soil formation; soil degradation; organic matter; biogeochemistry; organic matter decomposition; humus; carbon sequestration; global carbon cycle
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