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Soil classification

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Title: Soil classification  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Geotechnical engineering, Technosol, Australian Soil Classification, International Committee on Anthropogenic Soils, Soil type
Collection: Classification Systems, Geotechnical Engineering, Pedology, Types of Soil
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Soil classification

Soil classification deals with the systematic categorization of soils based on distinguishing characteristics as well as criteria that dictate choices in use.


  • Overview 1
    • Engineering 1.1
    • Soil science 1.2
  • Soil Classifications for OSHA 2
  • See also 3
  • Notes and references 4
  • Further reading 5
    • Current international system 5.1
    • Current national systems 5.2
    • Current technical systems 5.3
    • Earlier systems of historical interest 5.4
    • Principles 5.5
    • Numerical classification 5.6
  • References 6
  • External links 7


Soil classification is a dynamic subject, from the structure of the system itself, to the definitions of classes, and finally in the application in the field. Soil classification can be approached from the perspective of soil as a material and soil as a resource.


Engineers, typically geotechnical engineers, classify soils according to their engineering properties as they relate to use for foundation support or building material. Modern engineering classification systems are designed to allow an easy transition from field observations to basic predictions of soil engineering properties and behaviors.

The most common engineering classification system for soils in

Other engineering soil classification systems in the United States include the AASHTO Soil Classification System and the Modified Burmister system.[1]

A full geotechnical engineering soil description will also include other properties of the soil including color, in-situ moisture content, in-situ strength, and somewhat more detail about the material properties of the soil than is provided by the USCS code. The USCS and additional engineering description is standardized in ASTM D 2487.[2]

Soil science

Soil texture triangle showing the USDA classification system based on grain size

For soil resources, experience has shown that a natural system approach to classification, i.e. grouping soils by their intrinsic property (soil morphology), behaviour, or genesis, results in classes that can be interpreted for many diverse uses. Differing concepts of pedogenesis, and differences in the significance of morphological features to various land uses can affect the classification approach. Despite these differences, in a well-constructed system, classification criteria group similar concepts so that interpretations do not vary widely. This is in contrast to a technical system approach to soil classification, where soils are grouped according to their fitness for a specific use and their edaphic characteristics.

Natural system approaches to soil classification, such as the French Soil Reference System (Référentiel pédologique français) are based on presumed soil genesis. Systems have developed, such as USDA soil taxonomy and the World Reference Base for Soil Resources, which use taxonomic criteria involving soil morphology and laboratory tests to inform and refine hierarchical classes.

Another approach is numerical classification, also called ordination, where soil individuals are grouped by multivariate statistical methods such as cluster analysis. This produces natural groupings without requiring any inference about soil genesis.

In soil survey, as practiced in the United States, soil classification usually means criteria based on soil morphology in addition to characteristics developed during soil formation. Criteria are designed to guide choices in land use and soil management. As indicated, this is a hierarchical system that is a hybrid of both natural and objective criteria. USDA soil taxonomy provides the core criteria for differentiating soil map units. This is a substantial revision of the 1938 USDA soil taxonomy which was a strictly natural system. Soil taxonomy based soil map units are additionally sorted into classes based on technical classification systems. Land Capability Classes, hydric soil, and prime farmland are some examples.

In addition to scientific soil classification systems, there are also vernacular soil classification systems. Folk taxonomies have been used for millennia, while scientifically based systems are relatively recent developments.[3]

Soil Classifications for OSHA

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires the classification of soils to protect workers from injury when working in excavations and trenches. OSHA uses 3 soil classifications plus one for rock, based primarily on strength but also : [4]

  • Stable Rock: natural solid mineral matter that can be excavated with vertical sides and remain intact while exposed.
  • Type A - cohesive, plastic soils with unconfined compressive strength greater than 1.5 ton per square foot (tsf)(144 kPa), and meeting several other requirements
  • Type B - cohesive soils with unconfined compressive strength between 0.5 tsf (48 kPa) and 1.5 tsf (144 kPa), or unstable dry rock, or soils which would otherwise be Type A
  • Type C - granular soils or cohesive soils with unconfined compressive strength less than 0.5 tsf (48 kPa) or any submerged or freely seeping soil or adversely bedded soils

Each of the soil classifications has implications for the way the excavation must be made or the protections (sloping, shoring, shielding, etc.) that must be provided to protect workers from collapse of the excavated bank.[5][6]

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Soil classification systems. Url last accessed 2006-04-18
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^

Further reading

  • Eswaran, H., Rice, T., Ahrens, R., & Stewart, B. A. (Eds.). (2002). Soil classification : a global desk reference. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press.

Current international system

  • Buol, S.W., Southard, R.J., Graham, R.C., and McDaniel, P.A. (2003). Soil Genesis and Classification, 5th Edition. Iowa State Press - Blackwell, Ames, IA.
  • Driessen, P., Deckers, J., Spaargaren, O., & Nachtergaele, F. (Eds.). (2001). Lecture notes on the major soils of the world. Rome: FAO.
  • FAO. (1998). World Reference Base for Soil Resources. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Current national systems

  • Agriculture Canada Expert Committee on Soil Survey. (1987). The Canadian system of soil classification (2nd ed.). Ottawa: Canadian Government Publishing Centre.
  • Avery, B. W. (1980). Soil classification for England and Wales: higher categories. Cranfield, England: Cranfield University, Soil Survey & Land Research Centre/National Soil Resources Institute.[1]
  • Baize, D., & Girard, M. C. (Eds.). (1995). Référentiel pédologique 1995. Paris: Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique.
  • Baize, D., & Girard, M. C. (Eds.). (1998). A sound reference base for soils: The "Référentiel Pédologique" (English translation by Hodgson J.M., Eskenazi N.R., & Baize D. ed.). Paris: Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique.
  • Hewitt, A. E. (1992). Soil classification in New Zealand: legacy and lessons. Australian Journal of Soil Research, 30, 843-854.
  • Isbell, R. F. (1996). The Australian soil classification. Collingwood, Victoria, Australia: CSIRO.
  • Soil Classification Working Group. (1991). Soil classification: a taxonomic system for South Africa. Pretoria: Department of Agricultural Development, RSA.
  • Soil Survey Staff. (1999). Soil taxonomy: a basic system of soil classification for making and interpreting soil surveys (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service.

Current technical systems

Technical soil classification systems focus on representing some specific facet or quality of the soil, rather than a direct pedogenetic classification. Such technical classifications are developed with specific applications in mind, such as soil-water relationships, land quality assessment or geotechnical engineering.

  • Boorman, D. B., Hollis, J. M., & Lilly, A. (1995). Hydrology of soil types: a hydrologically-based classification of the soils of the United Kingdom (No. 126): UK Institute of Hydrology.[2]
  • Klingebiel, A. A., & Montgomery, P. H. (1961). Land capability classification. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.
  • Sanchez, P. A., Palm, C. A., & Buol, S. W. (2003). Fertility capability soil classification: a tool to help assess soil quality in the tropics. Geoderma, 114(3-4), 157-185.
  • American Society for Testing and Materials, 1985, D 2487-83, Classification of Soils for Engineering Purposes: Annual Book of ASTM Standards. Vol. 04.08, pp 395–408.

Earlier systems of historical interest

  • Baldwin, M., Kellogg, C. E., & Thorp, J. (1938). Soil classification. In Soils and men: Yearbook of agriculture (pp. 979–1001). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture.
  • Simonson, R. W. (1989). Historical aspects of soil survey and soil classification with emphasis on the United States, 1899-1970. Wageningen, NL: International Soil Reference and Information Centre (ISRIC).


  • Butler, B. E. (1980). Soil classification for soil survey. Oxford: Oxford Science Publications.Science, 96,
  • Cline, M. G. (1949). Basic principles of soil classification. Soil Science, 67(2), 81-91.
  • Cline, M. G. (1963). Logic of the new system of soil classification. Soil 17-22.
  • Webster, R. (1968). Fundamental objections to the 7th approximation. Journal of Soil Science, 19, 354-366.
  • Terzaghi Karl (1924). Soil Mechanics in Engineering Practice, Wiley-Interscience; 3 Sub-edition (January 1996, ISBN 0-471-08658-4)

Numerical classification

  • McBratney, A. B., & de Gruijter, J. J. (1992). A continuum approach to soil classification by modified fuzzy k-means with extragrades. Journal of Soil Science, 43(1), 159-175.


  1. ^
  2. ^

External links

  • A Compendium of On-Line Soil Survey Information - Soil Classification for Soil Survey by D. G. Rossiter
  • Engineering soil description and classification
  • OSHA Soil Classification
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