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Soil acidification

Soil acidification

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Soil acidification is the buildup of hydrogen
Hydrogen is the chemical element with atomic number 1. It is represented by the symbol H. With an average atomic weight of , hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant chemical element, constituting roughly 75% of the Universe's chemical elemental mass. Stars in the main sequence are mainly...

 cations, also called proton
The proton is a subatomic particle with the symbol or and a positive electric charge of 1 elementary charge. One or more protons are present in the nucleus of each atom, along with neutrons. The number of protons in each atom is its atomic number....

s, reducing the soil pH
Soil pH
The soil pH is a measure of the acidity or basicity in soils. pH is defined as the negative logarithm of the activity of hydrogen ions in solution. It ranges from 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral. A pH below 7 is acidic and above 7 is basic. Soil pH is considered a master variable in soils as it...

. This happens when a proton donor is added to the soil. The donor can be an acid
An acid is a substance which reacts with a base. Commonly, acids can be identified as tasting sour, reacting with metals such as calcium, and bases like sodium carbonate. Aqueous acids have a pH of less than 7, where an acid of lower pH is typically stronger, and turn blue litmus paper red...

, such as nitric acid
Nitric acid
Nitric acid , also known as aqua fortis and spirit of nitre, is a highly corrosive and toxic strong acid.Colorless when pure, older samples tend to acquire a yellow cast due to the accumulation of oxides of nitrogen. If the solution contains more than 86% nitric acid, it is referred to as fuming...

 and sulfuric acid
Sulfuric acid
Sulfuric acid is a strong mineral acid with the molecular formula . Its historical name is oil of vitriol. Pure sulfuric acid is a highly corrosive, colorless, viscous liquid. The salts of sulfuric acid are called sulfates...

 (these acids are common components of acid rain
Acid rain
Acid rain is a rain or any other form of precipitation that is unusually acidic, meaning that it possesses elevated levels of hydrogen ions . It can have harmful effects on plants, aquatic animals, and infrastructure. Acid rain is caused by emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen...

). It can also be a compound such as aluminium sulfate
Aluminium sulfate
Aluminium sulfate, alternatively spelt aluminum sulfate, aluminium sulphate, or aluminum sulphate; is a chemical compound with the formula Al23...

, which reacts in the soil to release protons. Many nitrogen
Nitrogen is a chemical element that has the symbol N, atomic number of 7 and atomic mass 14.00674 u. Elemental nitrogen is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, and mostly inert diatomic gas at standard conditions, constituting 78.08% by volume of Earth's atmosphere...

 compounds, which are added as fertilizer
Fertilizer is any organic or inorganic material of natural or synthetic origin that is added to a soil to supply one or more plant nutrients essential to the growth of plants. A recent assessment found that about 40 to 60% of crop yields are attributable to commercial fertilizer use...

, also acidify soil over the long term because they produce the ammonium
The ammonium cation is a positively charged polyatomic cation with the chemical formula NH. It is formed by the protonation of ammonia...

 ion which is a proton donor.

Acidification also occurs when base
Base (chemistry)
For the term in genetics, see base A base in chemistry is a substance that can accept hydrogen ions or more generally, donate electron pairs. A soluble base is referred to as an alkali if it contains and releases hydroxide ions quantitatively...

 cations such as calcium
Calcium is the chemical element with the symbol Ca and atomic number 20. It has an atomic mass of 40.078 amu. Calcium is a soft gray alkaline earth metal, and is the fifth-most-abundant element by mass in the Earth's crust...

, magnesium
Magnesium is a chemical element with the symbol Mg, atomic number 12, and common oxidation number +2. It is an alkaline earth metal and the eighth most abundant element in the Earth's crust and ninth in the known universe as a whole...

, potassium
Potassium is the chemical element with the symbol K and atomic number 19. Elemental potassium is a soft silvery-white alkali metal that oxidizes rapidly in air and is very reactive with water, generating sufficient heat to ignite the hydrogen emitted in the reaction.Potassium and sodium are...

 and sodium
Sodium is a chemical element with the symbol Na and atomic number 11. It is a soft, silvery-white, highly reactive metal and is a member of the alkali metals; its only stable isotope is 23Na. It is an abundant element that exists in numerous minerals, most commonly as sodium chloride...

 are leached from the soil. This leaching increases with increasing precipitation
Precipitation (meteorology)
In meteorology, precipitation In meteorology, precipitation In meteorology, precipitation (also known as one of the classes of hydrometeors, which are atmospheric water phenomena is any product of the condensation of atmospheric water vapor that falls under gravity. The main forms of precipitation...

. Acid rain
Acid rain
Acid rain is a rain or any other form of precipitation that is unusually acidic, meaning that it possesses elevated levels of hydrogen ions . It can have harmful effects on plants, aquatic animals, and infrastructure. Acid rain is caused by emissions of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen...

 accelerates the leaching of
Leaching (pedology)
In pedology, leaching is the loss of mineral and organic solutes due to percolation. It is a mechanism of soil formation. It is distinct from the soil forming process of eluviation, which is the loss of mineral and organic colloids. Leached and elluviated materials tend to be lost from topsoil and...

 bases. Plants take bases from the soil as they grow, donating a proton in exchange for each base cation. Where plant material is removed, as when a forest is logged or crops are harvested, the bases they have taken up are permanently lost from the soil.

Plant Leaves left on soil

Many plants produce organic acids. Where plant litter accumulates on or is incorporated to the soil, these acids (including acetic acid
Acetic acid
Acetic acid is an organic compound with the chemical formula CH3CO2H . It is a colourless liquid that when undiluted is also called glacial acetic acid. Acetic acid is the main component of vinegar , and has a distinctive sour taste and pungent smell...

, humic acid
Humic acid
Humic acid is a principal component of humic substances, which are the major organic constituents of soil , peat, coal, many upland streams, dystrophic lakes, and ocean water. It is produced by biodegradation of dead organic matter...

 (see http://www.suprahumic.unina.it/)
, oxalic acid
Oxalic acid
Oxalic acid is an organic compound with the formula H2C2O4. This colourless solid is a dicarboxylic acid. In terms of acid strength, it is about 3,000 times stronger than acetic acid. Oxalic acid is a reducing agent and its conjugate base, known as oxalate , is a chelating agent for metal cations...

, and tannic acid
Tannic acid
Tannic acid is a specific commercial form of tannin, a type of polyphenol. Its weak acidity is due to the numerous phenol groups in the structure...

) are liberated. This is especially acute in soils under coniferous trees such as pine
Pines are trees in the genus Pinus ,in the family Pinaceae. They make up the monotypic subfamily Pinoideae. There are about 115 species of pine, although different authorities accept between 105 and 125 species.-Etymology:...

, spruce
A spruce is a tree of the genus Picea , a genus of about 35 species of coniferous evergreen trees in the Family Pinaceae, found in the northern temperate and boreal regions of the earth. Spruces are large trees, from tall when mature, and can be distinguished by their whorled branches and conical...

 and fir
Firs are a genus of 48–55 species of evergreen conifers in the family Pinaceae. They are found through much of North and Central America, Europe, Asia, and North Africa, occurring in mountains over most of the range...

, which return fewer base cations to the soil than do most deciduous trees.

Rocks in the soil

Certain parent materials also contribute to soil acidification. Granite
Granite is a common and widely occurring type of intrusive, felsic, igneous rock. Granite usually has a medium- to coarse-grained texture. Occasionally some individual crystals are larger than the groundmass, in which case the texture is known as porphyritic. A granitic rock with a porphyritic...

s and their allied igneous rock
Rock (geology)
In geology, rock or stone is a naturally occurring solid aggregate of minerals and/or mineraloids.The Earth's outer solid layer, the lithosphere, is made of rock. In general rocks are of three types, namely, igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic...

s are called "acidic" because they have a lot of free quartz
Quartz is the second-most-abundant mineral in the Earth's continental crust, after feldspar. It is made up of a continuous framework of SiO4 silicon–oxygen tetrahedra, with each oxygen being shared between two tetrahedra, giving an overall formula SiO2. There are many different varieties of quartz,...

, which produces silicic acid
Silicic acid
Silicic acid is a general name for a family of chemical compounds of the element silicon, hydrogen, and oxygen, with the general formula [SiOx4-2x]n...

 on weathering. Also, they have relatively low amounts of calcium and magnesium. Some sedimentary rocks such as shale
Shale is a fine-grained, clastic sedimentary rock composed of mud that is a mix of flakes of clay minerals and tiny fragments of other minerals, especially quartz and calcite. The ratio of clay to other minerals is variable. Shale is characterized by breaks along thin laminae or parallel layering...

 and coal
Coal is a combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock usually occurring in rock strata in layers or veins called coal beds or coal seams. The harder forms, such as anthracite coal, can be regarded as metamorphic rock because of later exposure to elevated temperature and pressure...

 are rich in sulfide
A sulfide is an anion of sulfur in its lowest oxidation state of 2-. Sulfide is also a slightly archaic term for thioethers, a common type of organosulfur compound that are well known for their bad odors.- Properties :...

s, which, when hydrated and oxidized, produce sulfuric acid which is much stronger than silicic acid. Many coal spoils are too acidic to support vigorous plant growth, and coal gives off strong precursors to acid rain when it is burned. Marine clay
Clay is a general term including many combinations of one or more clay minerals with traces of metal oxides and organic matter. Geologic clay deposits are mostly composed of phyllosilicate minerals containing variable amounts of water trapped in the mineral structure.- Formation :Clay minerals...

s are also sulfide-rich in many cases, and such clays become very acidic if they are drained to an oxidizing state.


Acidification may also occur from nitrogen emissions into the air, as the nitrogen may end up deposited into the soil.

Acidifying compounds

  • Aluminium sulfate
    Aluminium sulfate
    Aluminium sulfate, alternatively spelt aluminum sulfate, aluminium sulphate, or aluminum sulphate; is a chemical compound with the formula Al23...

  • Ammonia
    Ammonia is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen with the formula . It is a colourless gas with a characteristic pungent odour. Ammonia contributes significantly to the nutritional needs of terrestrial organisms by serving as a precursor to food and fertilizers. Ammonia, either directly or...

  • Ammonium nitrate
  • Ammonium phosphate
    Ammonium phosphate
    Ammonium phosphate is the salt of ammonia and phosphoric acid. It has the formula 3PO4 and consists of ammonium cations and phosphate anion. It is obtained as a crystalline powder upon mixing concentrated solutions of ammonia and phosphoric acid, or on the addition of excess of ammonia to the...

  • Ammonium sulfate
    Ammonium sulfate
    Ammonium sulfate , 2SO4, is an inorganic salt with a number of commercial uses. The most common use is as a soil fertilizer. It contains 21% nitrogen as ammonium cations, and 24% sulfur as sulfate anions...

  • Ferrous sulfate
  • Monopotassium phosphate
    Monopotassium phosphate
    Monopotassium phosphate -- 24 -- is a soluble salt which is used as a fertilizer, a food additive and a fungicide. It is a source of phosphorus and potassium. It is also a buffering agent...

  • Phosphoric acid
    Phosphoric acid
    Phosphoric acid, also known as orthophosphoric acid or phosphoric acid, is a mineral acid having the chemical formula H3PO4. Orthophosphoric acid molecules can combine with themselves to form a variety of compounds which are also referred to as phosphoric acids, but in a more general way...

  • Urea
    Urea or carbamide is an organic compound with the chemical formula CO2. The molecule has two —NH2 groups joined by a carbonyl functional group....

  • Urea phosphate
    Urea phosphate
    Urea phosphate is an organic compound of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and phosphorus. Its formula is CO2.H3PO4. It is made by reacting urea with phosphoric acid....