Reading: Soil Horizons and Profiles

A residual soil forms over many years, as mechanical and chemical weathering slowly change solid rock into soil. The development of a residual soil may go something like this.

Three distinct layers of soil made obvious by their different color. The bottom layer is a light brown, the middle layer is an orangeish brown, and the top layer is a darker brown.

Figure 1. Soil is an important resource. Each soil horizon is distinctly visible in this photograph.

  1. The bedrock fractures because of weathering from ice wedging or another physical process.
  2. Water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide seep into the cracks to cause chemical weathering.
  3. Plants, such as lichens or grasses, become established and produce biological weathering.
  4. Weathered material collects until there is soil.
  5. The soil develops soil horizons, as each layer becomes progressively altered. The greatest degree of weathering is in the top layer. Each successive, lower layer is altered just a little bit less. This is because the first place where water and air come in contact with the soil is at the top.

A cut in the side of a hillside shows each of the different layers of soil. All together, these are called a soil profile (figure 1).

The simplest soils have three horizons: topsoil (A horizon), subsoil (B horizon), and C horizon.


Diagram of a soil profile showing the different colored layers

Figure 2. A soil profile is the complete set of soil layers. Each layer is called a horizon.

Called the A horizon, the topsoil is usually the darkest layer of the soil because it has the highest proportion of organic material. The topsoil is the region of most intense biological activity: insects, worms, and other animals burrow through it and plants stretch their roots down into it. Plant roots help to hold this layer of soil in place. In the topsoil, minerals may dissolve in the fresh water that moves through it to be carried to lower layers of the soil. Very small particles, such as clay, may also get carried to lower layers as water seeps down into the ground.


The B horizon or subsoil is where soluble minerals and clays accumulate. This layer is lighter brown and holds more water than the topsoil because of the presence of iron and clay minerals. There is less organic material. Look at figure 2.

C horizon

The C horizon is a layer of partially altered bedrock. There is some evidence of weathering in this layer, but pieces of the original rock are seen and can be identified.

Not all climate regions develop soils, and not all regions develop the same horizons. Some areas develop as many as five or six distinct layers, while others develop only very thin soils or perhaps no soils at all.


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