What Is Soil Science?

M. McGee

Soil science is the study of the earth’s soil as a renewable natural resource. This field was originally made up of a conglomeration of several disciplines, most notably chemistry, biology and geology, but has since grown into a fully recognized field of study. The field has science broken into two main divisions: pedology studies the soil as it exists in nature and edaphology studies man’s utilization of soil as a tool. While the two areas study different things, they have the same overall goals: maintaining soil quality, slowing desertification and safeguarding human activities from both the human and soil standpoint.

Soil science can improve crops.
Soil science can improve crops.

The study of man’s impact on the soil has been around for a long time. From the basic concepts of agriculture to crop rotation to modern lab-mixed soils and fertilizers, all these ideas come from studying the soil and how humans use it. Even so, it wasn’t until the 20th century that the field of soil science became a recognized scientific discipline.

Also called agronomy, soil science helps researchers better understand the plant sciences.
Also called agronomy, soil science helps researchers better understand the plant sciences.

There are two broad categories of soil science. Pedology focuses on how soils develop naturally, including how they are influenced by their environment and how the environment affects them. This leads to the classification of different soils with different properties. The soil has a dramatic impact on what can and can’t grow in an area, allowing researchers to both predict future growth and decode past growth.

The soil science edaphology focuses on man’s use of and impact on soil. This division often gets the most coverage since is deals with areas such as increasing soil fertility for greater crop yield, managing sewers and landfills and anticipating water runoff during floods. Since this field covers all of man’s usage for soil, it is the much larger of the two main divisions.

Even though the field of soil science is broken into two areas, it is rarely that simple. There is a vast amount of overlap between the two spheres. For example, pedology would have a greater understanding of the composition and morphology of soil over time, but an edaphologist would need that information to determine if the soil can support a man-made structure. On the other hand, historical pedology soil data is only valid when there is no human usage; to decode layers of inhabitation, an edaphologist would have to be consulted.

While many of the usages of soil science are well known, even to a layperson, some are less obvious. These fields work heavily with ground contamination remediation from landfills, toxic dumping and ecological accidents. A soil scientist is often consulted by paleontologists and archeologists to help decipher areas where specimens are found in highly disturbed areas. Lastly, the modern field of climatology is learning that soil contains vast amounts of information related to greenhouse cycles and carbon fixation.

Soil scientists often analyzes soil samples in a laboratory.
Soil scientists often analyzes soil samples in a laboratory.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


@Mor - I actually think it's going to end up being one of the big growth industries in the next few decades. One of the things that has happened a lot in the world recently is the degradation of soil. When you change a habitat, for example, cutting down a forest in order to make farms, you end up ruining the soil in the long run so that nothing will grow there.

And people think droughts are mainly to do with the weather, but a lot of it has to do with the soil as well. So, if we had more people working out how to understand and rehabilitate soil to a better condition, we'd end up with fewer droughts and fewer disasters in general (since understanding soil science can also help reduce flooding and slips and so forth).

It's one of the most important subjects of the century as far as I'm concerned and one that I hope a lot of people take up as a career.


@bythewell - My father used to talk like that about soil. He was also always pointing out lichens to me when we were walking, because apparently they are the ones that create soil. On a volcanic plain they are the first organisms to colonize it, and, along with the elements, they help to grind up the solid rock and make it into soil over thousands of years.

It is kind of cool, but I'm not sure I'd want to study it as a profession.


Soil is so incredibly complex it's amazing that there is so much of it everywhere and we hardly ever think about it. Even just a handful of it contains millions of microbes and different chemical components. And it basically feeds the entire planet by allowing plants to live and recycling them and everything else back into the ecosystem.

I took a class on soil science at university and thought it was going to be one of the boring ones, but it was actually one of my favorites.

Post your comments
Forgot password?