Soils are natural expressions of the environment in which they were formed. They are derived from an infinite variety of materials that have been subjected to a wide spectrum of climatic conditions. Soil development is influenced by the topography on which soils occur, the plant and animal life which they support and the amount of time which they have been exposed to these conditions.

Soi1 scientists recognize five major factors that influence soil formation: 1) parent material, 2) climate, 3) living organisms (especially native vegetation), 4) topography and 5) time. The combined influence of these soil-forming factors determines the properties of a soil and their degree of expression (fig. 2).

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Figure 2. The five factors of soil formation affect the processes that influence soil development.


Parent Material


Parent material refers to organic (such as fresh peat) and mineral material in which soil formation begins. Mineral material includes partially weathered rock, ash from volcanos, sediments moved and deposited by wind and water, or ground up rock deposited by glaciers. The material has a strong effect on the type of soil developed as well as the rate at which development takes place. Soil development may take place quicker in materials that are more permeable to water. Dense, massive, clayey materials can be resistant to soil formation processes.

Bedrock such as limestone, sandstone, shale, granite, gneiss and schist, slate, marble and many others break down into residuum (residue) through the weathering process. It is this residuum that becomes the parent material of soil and imparts some of the parent characteristics into the resulting soil profile.

Soil material and rock fragments may fall, roll or slide downslope under the influence of gravity and water. This incoherent mass of material that generally accumulates on the lower portion of slopes and in depressions is called colluvium. Rock fragments in colluvium generally are angular in contrast to the rounded waterworn cobbles and stones found in alluvium and glacial outwash. 

Streams and rivers commonly overflow their banks and deposit fresh materials on the floodplains. These fresh or recent deposits, commonly topsoil, comprise the parent materials for the soils developed on these floodplains. Since there is new material added almost annually, the soils never have time to form well-developed horizons. Therefore, these young soils have poorly developed profiles, and most of their character is inherited from the parent material. This type of parent material exceeds 0.5 m (20 in.) in depth, and it is referred to on the scorecard as recent alluvium


Soils located on stream terrace positions that contain water worn coarse fragments have parent materials referred to as old alluvium. These soils were originally deposited by water and commonly have had time to form well-developed horizons. They never or rarely flood, and thus are not influenced by deposition of fresh materials. 

In the Mid-Atlantic region, large areas are underlain by the complex series of water-deposited sediments left by previous geologic events. These older sediments comprise the Coastal Plain along the Atlantic seaboard. In Maryland, these materials occupy half of the land area, and they comprise nearly all the parent material for Delaware soils and large segments of New Jersey. These Coastal Plain sediments, although much older than the recent alluvium along streams, have not been cemented and consolidated into bedrock--thus, the name unconsolidated sediments. Often these sediments have been capped or coated with a thin (several cm to several m) veneer or sheet of material consisting mainly of silt (loess). The wind may have carried this material from the glacial outwash areas before the rise in sea level that formed the Chesapeake Bay. The Coastal Plain soils are formed in these sediments and silt-cap parent materials. Therefore, soils occurring on the upland portions of the Coastal Plain are considered to have Coastal Plain sediments as their parent materials on the scorecard. Recent alluvium can and does occur on the Coastal Plain in the same landscape positions (along streams and rivers) as in other sections of the state.



Climate is a major factor in determining the kind of plant and animal life on and in the soil. It determines the amount of water available for weathering minerals, transporting the minerals and releasing elements. Climate, through its influence on soil temperature, determines the rate of chemical weathering.

Warm, moist climates encourage rapid plant growth and thus high organic matter production. The opposite is true for cold, dry climates. Organic matter decomposition is also accelerated in warm, moist climates. Under the control of climate freezing, thawing, wetting, and drying break parent material apart.

Rainfall causes leaching. Rain dissolves some minerals, such as carbonates, and transports them deeper into the soil. Some acid soils have developed from parent materials that originally contained limestone. Rainfall can also be acid, especially downwind from industrial processes.


Living organisms

Plants affect soil development by supplying upper layers with organic matter, recycling nutrients from lower to upper layers, and helping to prevent erosion. In general, deep rooted plants contribute more to soil development than shallow rooted plants because the passages they create allow greater water movement, which in turn aids in leaching. Leaves, twigs, and bark from large plants fall onto the soil and are broken down by fungi, bacteria, insects, earthworms, and burrowing animals. These organisms eat and break down organic matter releasing plant nutrients. Some change certain elements, such as sulfur and nitrogen, into usable forms for plants.

Microscopic organisms and the humus they produce act as a kind of glue to hold soil particles together in aggregates. Well-aggregated soil is ideal for providing the right combination of air and water to plant roots.

Animals living in the soil affect decomposition of waste materials and how soil materials will be moved around in the soil profile.


Landscape position

Landscape position causes localized changes in moisture and temperature. When rain falls on a landscape, water begins to move downward by the force of gravity, either through the soil or across the surface to a lower elevation. Even though the landscape has the same soil-forming factors of climate, organisms, parent material, and time, drier soils at higher elevations may be quite different from the wetter soils where water accumulates. Wetter areas may have reducing conditions that will inhibit proper root growth for plants that require a balance of soil oxygen, water, and nutrients.

Steepness, shape, and length of slope are important because they influence the rate at which water flows into or off the soil. If unprotected, soils on slopes may erode leaving a thinner surface layer. Eroded soils tend to be less fertile and have less available water than uneroded soils of the same series.

Aspect affects soil temperature. Generally, for most of the continental United States, soils on north-facing slopes tend to be cooler and wetter than soils on south-facing slopes. Soils on north-facing slopes tend to have thicker A and B horizons and tend to be less droughty.



Position generally refers to the point on the landscape where the soil is located. Most soil series have a rather limited range of position and land form. In figure 3, the landscape is divided into (1) upland, (2) upland depression, (3) terrace, and (4) floodplain. Most soils can be classified into one of these landscape positions by observing the general surroundings in respect to streams or natural drainage systems. 


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Figure 3. Landscape position can be upland, upland depression, terrace, or floodplain.

The floodplains refer to areas near streams that flood periodically. These soils may be quite productive, but they have a flooding hazard that seriously limits their use for urban development or agriculture. Terrace refers to soils developed in older alluvial materials above the zone of current flooding. Upland depressions or waterways refer to soils developed on concave land forms or at the heads of drainage ways and along waterways where surface drainage is retarded. Water tends to pond in these depressions, and the soils commonly have a darker and thicker surface horizon because of organic matter accumulations. Areas unaffected by stream activity in recent geologic time, and ordinarily lying at higher elevations (than alluvial plains) on rolling and convex positions, are designated upland.


Slope Characteristics

Slope generally is expressed as a percentage that is calculated by dividing the difference in elevation between two points by the horizontal distance and multiplying by 100. For example, a 10 percent slope would have a 10-foot drop per 100 horizontal feet. The percent slope can be estimated visually, but the Abney level, or a similar type of instrument, is used for more precise measurements. 

Slope classes are used for interpretive purposes. The classes are nearly level, gently sloping, strongly sloping, moderately steep, steep and very steep. The range in percentages for these classes will vary depending on the topography of the area. Because of contrasting landscapes, two divisions are used in establishing limits for the slope classes in Maryland: (1) the Coastal Plain and (2) a combination formed by the Appalachian and Piedmont provinces. The slope classes and appropriate ranges of percent for the two divisions are shown in table 1. 


Table 1. Slope classes for Maryland’s Coastal Plain and Piedmont-Appalachian provinces and their corresponding letter designations in the soil survey.

Sloe Class

Coastal Plain


Soil Survey




Letter Designation

Nearly level




Gently sloping




Moderately sloping




Moderately steep


15 25






Very steep





Time is required for horizon formation. The longer a soil surface has been exposed to soil forming agents like rain and growing plants, the greater the development of the soil profile. Soils in recent alluvial or windblown materials or soils on steep slopes where erosion has been active may show very little horizon development.

Soils on older, stable surfaces generally have well defined horizons because the rate of soil formation has exceeded the rate of geologic erosion or deposition. As soils age, many original minerals are destroyed and many new ones are formed. Soils become more leached, more acid, and more clayey. In many well drained soils, the B horizons tend to become redder with time.