Water As A Constituent Of Soil

"The occurrence of water is, moreover, not less important and hardly less general upon the land. In addition to lakes and streams, water is almost everywhere present in large quantities in the soil, retained there mainly by capillary action, and often at greater depths." (Henderson, 1913).

Lawrence J. Henderson, a noted physical chemist and physiologist, published a book (The Fitness of the Environment, 1913), which was a landmark among books on biological topics. Henderson's thesis is that one substance, water, is responsible for the characteristics of life, and the biosphere as we know it. The highly bipolar nature of water, with its twin hydrogen bonds, leads to a number of intriguing characteristics (e.g., high specific heat), which have enabled life in the thin diaphanous veil of the biosphere (Lovelock, 1979, 1988) to extend and proliferate almost endlessly through the air, water, soil, and several kilometers into the earth's mantle (Whitman et al., 1998).

A central fact of soil science is that certain physicochemical relationships of matter in all areas of the biosphere are mediated by water. Thus soil, which we normally think of as opaque and solid, from the wettest organic muck soil to the parched environs of the Atacama, Kalahari, Gobi, or Mojave deserts, is dominated by the amount and availability of water.

Consider water in each of its phases—solid, liquid, and gaseous:

1. Solid: In aquatic ecosystems, water freezes from the top down, because it has its greatest density at 4°C. This allows for organismal activity to continue at lower depths and in sediments as well. In soil, the well-insulated nature of the soil materials and water with its high specific heat means that there is less likelihood of rapid freezing. Water expands when it freezes. In more polar climates (and in some temperate ones), soil can be subjected to "frost heaving," which can be quite disruptive, depending on the nature of the subsurface materials.

2. Liquid: Water's high specific heat of 1 calorie per gram per degree Celsius increase in temperature has a significant stabilizing influence in bodies of water and soil (Table 1.1; Hadas, 1979). The effect of the high specific heat is to reduce fluctuations in temperature. The location of the liquid, in various films, or in empty spaces, has a marked influence on the soil biota.

3. Vapor: It is somewhat counterintuitive but true that the atmosphere within air-dry soil (gravimetric water content of 2% by weight) has a relative humidity of 98%. The consequences of this humidity for life in the soil are profound. Most soil organisms spend their lives in an atmosphere saturated with water. Many soil animals absorb and lose water through their integuments, and are entirely dependent upon saturated atmospheres for their existence.

From the pragmatic viewpoint of the soil physicist, we can consider aqueous and vapor phases of water conjointly. Following a moisture release curve, one can trace the pattern of water, in volume and location in the soil pore spaces, in the following manner (Vannier, 1987). Starting

Chapter 1 Historical Overview of Soils TABLE 1.1. Specific Heats of Various Substances


Specific HeatA








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