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Unit information: Soils and the Critical Zone in 2015/16

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Unit name Soils and the Critical Zone
Unit code EASC20037
Credit points 10
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2D (weeks 19 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Buss
Open unit status Not open

EASC10001 Geology 1



School/department School of Earth Sciences
Faculty Faculty of Science


This unit is an introduction to the biology, mineralogy, chemistry and physics of soils, including how soils form and evolve, methods of soil classification, the global distribution of soil types, the diversity and role of macro- and micro-organisms in soils, and how moisture and heat move within soils. The unit takes a modern approach by placing soils in the integrated framework of critical zone science, wherein the entire portion of the terrestrial Earth that supports life (the critical zone) is viewed from a holistic perspective where compartments (such as soils) and their processes and interfaces are part of the whole system.

Key aims of the unit will be to learn the basics of soil science as listed above as well as the feedbacks between soil processes and other parts of the critical zone and the implications of these feedbacks for soil sustainability and functions, regional and global biogeochemical cycles, and climate feedbacks.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of the unit, students will be able to:

  • Describe (i) the nature and function of soils, (ii) the main horizons and layers in soil profiles, (iii) the role of soil organisms in environmental biogeochemistry, and (iv) how soils are classified, and (v) the global distribution of soil types.
  • Explain how in soils (i) secondary minerals are formed from weathering products and transformations of primary minerals, (ii) water and gas move and interact, and (iii) heat is transferred.
  • Categorise critical zone regimes based on geochemical and physical depth profile data and use this information to (i) make predictions about the sustainability of soils and their functions and (ii) interpret the effects of critical zone processes to biogeochemical and climate cycles.
  • Solve basic quantitative problems in soil physics and chemistry.

Teaching details

15 lectures and 5 practicals

Assessment Details

Coursework (40%) comprising problem sets and a 2,000 word essay, and 2 hour written exam (60%)

Reading and References

Essential (will be made available on Blackboard)

  • Richter DD & Markewitz D. 1995. How deep is soil? Bioscience 45(9): 600-609.
  • Brantley SL, Goldhaber MB, Ragnarsdottir KV. 2007. Crossing disciplines and scales to understand the critical zone. Elements 3: 307-314.


  • Brady, NC & Weil, RR., (2007) The Nature and Properties of Soils, 14th ed.
  • Rowell, D.L., (1994), Soil Science: Methods and Applications. 360pp.