Soils support a wide range of functions upon which life on Earth depends. They are the medium in which most of our food grows and yet productive soils are confined to only 3% of the total area of the Earth. If poorly managed they are susceptible to erosion and lose their productive capacity. Soils filter water before it enters aquifers or rivers and so they are a key component of the hydrological cycle. The global soil resource stores more reactive carbon than the atmosphere and all vegetation combined, so soil carbon is of great importance for the carbon cycle and understanding anthropogenic climate change. Soils also act as a sink for soil contaminants and manufactured nanoparticles. The physical properties of soils have significance for all these functions relating to soil fertility, hydrology, carbon storage and the attenuation of nanoparticles.

The BGS laboratories operate a wide range of specialist equipment suitable for research into soils. This includes a state-of-the-art laser diffraction particle size analyser that can be used to study both soil and sediment particle size distribution and the strength or stability of soil aggregates, which is of fundamental importance to soil degradation processes. Other instrumentation measures specific surface area (based on nitrogen adsorption), which provides an estimate of both internal and external areas of particles which can be important for water-holding capacity and understanding the mineralogical composition of the soil.

Selected research

View North from Chilbolton-DownSoil clay responses to changing landuse

Recent investigations on clay mineralogy of soils from the Rothamsted Experiments archive.

Black Ven landslideInfrared measurement of soils

Characterising soil structure with infrared spectroscopy as a tool for use in satellite imagery.

Using infra-red spectra as an analogue for soil particle sizeCost-effective measurement of soil particle size using infra-red spectra

Using infra-red spectra as an analogue for soil particle size.