Soil acidification

Soil acidification is the buildup of hydrogen cations, which reduces the soil pH. Chemically, this happens when a proton donor gets added to the soil. The donor can be an acid, such as nitric acid, sulfuric acid, or carbonic acid. It can also be a compound such as aluminium sulfate, which reacts in the soil to release protons. Acidification also occurs when base cations such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium are leached from the soil.

Soil acidification naturally occurs as lichens and algae begin to break down rock surfaces. Acids continue with this dissolution as soil develops. With time and weathering, soils become more acidic in natural ecosystems. Soil acidification rates can vary, and increase with certain factors such as acid rain, agriculture, and pollution. [1]


Acid Rain

Rainfall is naturally acidic due to carbonic acid forming from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This compound causes rainfall pH to be around 5.0-5.5. When rainfall has a lower pH than natural levels, it can cause rapid acidification of soil. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are precursors of stronger acids that can lead to acid rain production when they react with water in the atmosphere. These gases may be present in the atmosphere due to natural sources such as lightning and volcanic eruptions, or from anthropogenic emissions. [2] Basic cations like calcium are leached from the soil as acidic rainfall flows, which allows aluminum and proton levels to increase. [3]

Biological weathering

Plant roots acidify soil by releasing protons and organic acids so as to chemically weather soil minerals.[4] Decaying remains of dead plants on soil may also form organic acids which contribute to soil acidification.[5] Acidification from leaf litter on soil is more pronounced under coniferous trees such as pine, spruce and fir, which return fewer base cations to the soil,rather than under deciduous trees. [6]

Parent Materials

Certain parent materials also contribute to soil acidification. Granites and their allied igneous rocks are called "acidic" because they have a lot of free quartz, which produces silicic acid on weathering. Also, they have relatively low amounts of calcium and magnesium. Some sedimentary rocks such as shale and coal are rich in sulfides, which, when hydrated and oxidized, produce sulfuric acid which is much stronger than silicic acid. Many coal soils are too acidic to support vigorous plant growth, and coal gives off strong precursors to acid rain when it is burned. Marine clays are also sulfide-rich in many cases, and such clays become very acidic if they are drained to an oxidizing state.

Soil Amendments

Soil amendments such as fertilizers and manures can cause soil acidification. Sulfur based fertilizers can be highly acidifying, examples include elemental sulfur and iron sulfate while others like potassium sulfate have no significant effect on soil pH. While most nitrogen fertilizers have an acidifying effect, ammonium-based nitrogen fertilizers are more acidifying than other nitrogen sources. Ammonia-based nitrogen fertilizers include ammonium sulfate, diammonium phosphate, monoammonium phosphate, and ammonium nitrate. Organic nitrogen sources, such as urea and compost, are less acidifying. Nitrate sources which have little or no ammonium, such as calcium nitrate, magnesium nitrate, potassium nitrate, and sodium nitrate, are not acidifying.[7][8][9]


Acidification may also occur from nitrogen emissions into the air, as the nitrogen may end up deposited into the soil.[10] Animal livestock is responsible for nearly 65 percent of man-made ammonia emissions.[11]

Anthropogenic sources of sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides play a major role in increase of acid rain production. The use of fossil fuels and motor exhaust are the largest anthropogenic contributors to sulfuric gases and nitrogen oxides, respectively. [12]


Soil acidification can cause damage to plants and organisms in the soil. In plants, soil acidification results in smaller, less durable roots. Acidic soils sometimes damage the root tips reducing further growth.[13] Plant height is impaired and seed germination also decreases. Soil acidification impacts plant health, resulting in reduced cover and lower plant density.Overall,stunted growth is seen in plants.[14] Soil acidification is directly linked to a decline in endangered species of plants.[15]

In the soil, acidification reduces microbial and macrofaunal diversity.[16]  This can reduce soil structure decline which makes it more sensitive to erosion. There are less nutrients available in the soil, larger impact of toxic elements to plants, and consequences to soil biological functions (such as nitrogen fixation).[17]

At a larger scale, soil acidification is linked to losses in agricultural productivity due to these effects.[16]

Prevention and Management

Soil acidification is a common issue in long-term crop production which can be reduced by lime application. In soybean and corn crops grown in acidic soils, lime application resulted in nutrient restoration, increase in soil pH, increase in root biomass, and better plant health. [18]

Different management strategies may also be applied to prevent further acidification: using less acidifying fertilizers, considering fertilizer amount and application timing to reduce nitrate-nitrogen leaching, good irrigation management with acid-neutralizing water, and considering the ratio of basic nutrients to nitrogen in harvested crops. Sulfur fertilizers should only be used in responsive crops, with a high rate of crop recovery. [19]

Through reduction of anthropogenic sources of sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides, and with air-pollution control measures,let us try to reduce acid rain and soil acidification all over the world. [20]

See also


  1. "Copyright", Soil Acidity and Plant Growth, Elsevier, 1989, pp. iv, doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-590655-5.50002-5, ISBN 9780125906555
  2. Blake, L. (2005), "ACID RAIN AND SOIL ACIDIFICATION", Encyclopedia of Soils in the Environment, Elsevier, pp. 1–11, doi:10.1016/b0-12-348530-4/00083-7, ISBN 9780123485304
  3. "Acid Rain Effects on Forest Soils begin to Reverse". Retrieved 2019-03-22.
  4. Chigira, M.; Oyama, T. (2000-01-01), Kanaori, Yuji; Tanaka, Kazuhiro; Chigira, Masahiro (eds.), "Engineering Geological Advances in Japan for the New Millennium", Developments in Geotechnical Engineering, Engineering Geological Advances in Japan for the New Millennium, Elsevier, 84, pp. 267–278, doi:10.1016/S0165-1250(00)80022-X, ISBN 9780444505057 |chapter= ignored (help)
  5. Tom, Nisbet (2014). Forestry and surface water acidification. Forestry Commission. ISBN 9780855389000. OCLC 879011334.
  6. Alban, David H. (1982). "Effects of Nutrient Accumulation by Aspen, Spruce, and Pine on Soil Properties1". Soil Science Society of America Journal. 46 (4): 853. Bibcode:1982SSASJ..46..853A. doi:10.2136/sssaj1982.03615995004600040037x. ISSN 0361-5995.
  7. Schindler, D. W.; Hecky, R. E. (2009). "Eutrophication: More Nitrogen Data Needed". Science. 324 (5928): 721–722. Bibcode:2009Sci...324..721S. doi:10.1126/science.324_721b. PMID 19423798.
  8. Penn, C. J.; Bryant, R. B. (2008). "Phosphorus Solubility in Response to Acidification of Dairy Manure Amended Soils". Soil Science Society of America Journal. 72 (1): 238–243. Bibcode:2008SSASJ..72..238P. doi:10.2136/sssaj2007.0071N.
  9. "Don't let nitrogen acidify your soil". Department of Primary Industries - New South Wales. Retrieved 2019-01-13.
  10. USGS. Acid Soils in Slovakia Tell Somber Tale.
  11. Henning Steinfeld; Pierre Gerber; Tom Wassenaar; Vincent Castel; Mauricio Rosales; Cees de Haan (2006). "Livestock's Long Shadow: Environmental issues and options". Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Retrieved 25 October 2012.
  12. Sparks, D. L. (2003). Environmental soil chemistry. Academic Press. ISBN 0126564469. OCLC 693474273.
  13. HALING, REBECCA E.; SIMPSON, RICHARD J.; CULVENOR, RICHARD A.; LAMBERS, HANS; RICHARDSON, ALAN E. (2010-12-22). "Effect of soil acidity, soil strength and macropores on root growth and morphology of perennial grass species differing in acid-soil resistance". Plant, Cell & Environment. 34 (3): 444–456. doi:10.1111/j.1365-3040.2010.02254.x. ISSN 0140-7791. PMID 21062319.
  14. Horne, James E.; Kalevitch, Alexandre E.; Filimonova, Mariia V. (1996-05-03). "Soil Acidity Effect on Initial Wheat Growth and Development". Journal of Sustainable Agriculture. 7 (2–3): 5–13. doi:10.1300/j064v07n02_03. ISSN 1044-0046.
  15. Roem, W.J; Berendse, F (2000-02-01). "Soil acidity and nutrient supply ratio as possible factors determining changes in plant species diversity in grassland and heathland communities". Biological Conservation. 92 (2): 151–161. doi:10.1016/S0006-3207(99)00049-X.
  16. B. Davis; N. Walker; D. Ball; A. Fitter. Impacts of acid soils in Victoria : a report. Rutherglen, Vic. ISBN 1741062462. OCLC 1034691965.
  17. Hollier, Carole; Reid, Michael (April 2005). "Acid Soils" (PDF). ISSN 1329-8062.
  18. Joris, Helio Antonio Wood; Caires, Eduardo Fávero; Bini, Angelo Rafael; Scharr, Danilo Augusto; Haliski, Adriano (2012-08-14). "Effects of soil acidity and water stress on corn and soybean performance under a no-till system". Plant and Soil. 365 (1–2): 409–424. doi:10.1007/s11104-012-1413-2. ISSN 0032-079X.
  19. Wortmann, Charles S. (2015-06-15). Management strategies to reduce the rate of soil acidification. Cooperative Extension, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. OCLC 57216722.
  20. "Acid Rain Effects on Forest Soils begin to Reverse". Retrieved 2019-04-06.

Further reading

  • Fenn, M. E.; Huntington, T. G.; McLaughlin, S. B.; Eagar, C.; Gomez, A.; Cook, R. B. (2006). "Status of soil acidification in North America" (PDF). Journal of Forest Science. 52: 3–13. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-10-20. Retrieved 2019-01-13. Ca depletion is a primary mechanism of acid deposition effects in eastern North America
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