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Appendix 1: Soil horizon designations


The capital letters H. O. A, E, B. C and R represent the master horizons and layers of soils. The capital letters are the base symbols to which other characters are added to complete the designation. Most horizons and layers are given a single capital letter symbol, but some require two. Currently seven master horizons and layers are recognized.

The master horizons and their subdivisions represent layers which show evidence of change and some layers which have not been changed. Most are genetic soil horizons, reflecting a qualitative judgement about the kind of changes which have taken place. Genetic horizons are not equivalent to diagnostic horizons, although they may be identical in soil profiles. Diagnostic horizons are quantitatively defined features used in classification.

H horizons or layers: Layers dominated by organic material, formed from accumulations of undecomposed or partially decomposed organic material at the soil surface which may be underwater. All H horizons are saturated with water for prolonged periods or were once saturated but are now artificially drained. An H horizon may be on top of mineral soils or at any depth beneath the surface if it is buried.

O horizons or layers: Layers dominated by organic material, consisting of undecomposed or partially decomposed litter, such as leaves, needles, twigs, moss, and lichens, which has accumulated on the surface; they may be on top of either mineral or organic soils. O horizons are not saturated with water for prolonged periods. The mineral fraction of such material is only a small percentage of the volume of the material and generally is much less than half of the weight.

An O layer may be at the surface of a mineral soil or at any depth beneath the surface if it is buried. An horizon formed by illuviation of organic material into a mineral subsoil is not an O horizon, though some horizons formed in this manner contain much organic matter.

A horizons: Mineral horizons which formed at the surface or below an O horizon, in which all or much of the original rock structure has been obliterated and which are characterized by one or more of the following:

- an accumulation of humified organic matter intimately mixed with the mineral fraction and not displaying properties characteristic of E or B horizons (see below);

- properties resulting from cultivation, pasturing, or similar kinds of disturbance; or

- a morphology which is different from the underlying B or C horizon, resulting from processes related to the surface.

If a surface horizon has properties of both A and E horizons but the dominant feature is an accumulation of humified organic matter, it is designated an A horizon. In some places, such as warm arid climates, the undisturbed surface horizon is less dark than the adjacent underlying horizon and contains only small amounts of organic matter. It has a morphology distinct from the C layer, though the mineral fraction may be unaltered or only slightly altered by weathering. Such an horizon is designated A because it is at the surface. Examples of soils which may have a different structure or morphology due to surface processes are Vertisols, soils in pans or playas with little vegetation, and soils in deserts. However, recent alluvial or aeolian deposits that retain fine stratification are not considered to be an A horizon unless cultivated.

E horizons: Mineral horizons in which the main feature is loss of silicate clay, iron, aluminum, or some combination of these, leaving a concentration of sand and silt particles, and in which all or much of the original rock structure has been obliterated.

An E horizon is usually, but not necessarily, lighter in colour than an underlying B horizon. In some soils the colour is that of the sand and silt particles, but in many soils coatings of iron oxides or other compounds mask the colour of the primary particles. An E horizon is most commonly differentiated from an underlying B horizon in the same soil profile by colour of a higher value or lower chrome, or both; by coarser texture; or by a combination of these properties. An E horizon is commonly near the surface, below an O or A horizon and above a B horizon, but the symbol E may be used without regard to position in the profile for any horizon that meets the requirements and that has resulted from soil genesis.

B horizons: Horizons that formed below an A, E, O or H horizon, and in which the dominant features are the obliteration of all or much of the original rock structure, together with one or a combination of the following:

- illuvial concentration, alone or in combination, of silicate clay, iron, aluminum, humus, carbonates, gypsum or silica;

- evidence of removal of carbonates;

- residual concentration of sesquioxides;

- coatings of sesquioxides that make the horizon conspicuously lower in value, higher in chrome, or redder in hue than overlying and underlying horizons without apparent illuviation of iron;

- alteration that forms silicate clay or liberates oxides or both and that forms a granular, blocky, or prismatic structure if volume changes accompany changes in moisture content; or

- brittleness.

All kinds of B horizons are, or were originally, subsurface horizons. Included as B horizons are layers of illuvial concentration of carbonates, gypsum, or silica that are the result of pedogenetic processes (these layers may or may not be cemented) and brittle layers that have other evidence of alteration, such as prismatic structure or illuvial accumulation of clay.

Examples of layers that are not B horizons are layers in which clay films either coat rock fragments or are on finely stratified unconsolidated sediments, whether the films were formed in place or by illuviation; layers into which carbonates have been illuviated but that are not contiguous to an overlying genetic horizon; and layers with gleying but no other pedogenetic changes.

C horizons or layers: Horizons or layers, excluding hard bedrock, that are little affected by pedogenetic processes and lack properties of H. O. A, E, or B horizons. Most are mineral layers, but some siliceous and calcareous layers such as shells, coral and diatomaceous earth, are included. The material of C layers may be either like or unlike that from which the solum presumably formed. A C horizon may have been modified even if there is no evidence of pedogenesis. Plant roots can penetrate C horizons, which provide an important growing medium.

Included as C layers are sediments, saprolite, and unconsolidated bedrock and other geologic materials that commonly slake within 24 hours when air dry or drier chunks are placed in water and when moist can be dug with a spade. Some soils form in material that is already highly weathered, and such material that does not meet the requirements of A, E or B horizons is designated C. Changes not considered pedogenetic are those not related to overlying horizons. Layers having accumulations of silica, carbonates, or gypsum, even if indurated, may be included in C horizons, unless the layer is obviously affected by pedogenetic processes; then it is a B horizon.

R layers: Hard bedrock underlying the soil.

Granite, basalt, quartzite and indurated limestone or sandstone are examples of bedrock that are designated R. Air dry or drier chunks of an R layer when placed in water will not slake within 24 hours. The R layer is sufficiently coherent when moist to make hand digging with a spade impractical, although it may be chipped or scraped. Some R layers can be ripped with heavy power equipment. The bedrock may contain cracks, but these are so few and so small that few roots can penetrate. The cracks may be coated or filled with clay or other material.

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