The Effects of

Charcoal on Soil Bulk
Density
Tyler-Anne Buck
Stockton University
Galloway, NJ 08205
The purpose of the paper is to investigate the effects that charcoal has on the bulk
density of soils.
This paper is intended for scientists and students interested in the influence of charcoal
on soil properties.

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Abstract
The purpose of this study was to assess the effects that charcoal has on the bulk
densities of soil. This was done through the field collection and three dimensional (3D)
analysis of clods in each horizon of two pairs of soils pits. Each pair consisted of one
charcoal hearth and one control pit in the surrounding area. The charcoal hearths are
small plots on the mountain that were once exposed to burning and heating which lead
to the development of soils with charcoal. The average bulk density of each horizon at
each pit was calculated through the collection, three dimensional scanning for volume,
and weighing for mass of each clod. The findings between the charcpal hearths and
control pits did not support the hypothesis that charcoal lowers the bulk density in soil.
Introduction
Soil properties and characteristics develop through the processes they are
subjected to from their surrounding environment. In some cases, not all processes are
naturally occurring. In Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland, charcoal hearths form from
the burning of tree logs to produced charcoal. This charcoal was in demand as it was
needed to fuel the Catoctin Iron Furnace. The use of the furnaces peaked between
1859 and 1885. They were used in order to extract iron from iron ore which was a huge
asset to the economy as it brought in jobs and was used in other manufacturing. Trees
were cut and stacked in a chimney orientation on a leveled and raked plot of the
mountain. More tree logs were leaned against the chimney and then charred by
maintaining a small fire within the chimney for up to seven weeks. These flattened and
leveled plot would become the charcoal hearth. This process of charring and its effects

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of different soil properties was also investigated in Tennessee (Hart et al., 2008) and
Pennsylvania forests. (Mikan and Abrams, 1995)
Charcoal hearths can be identified on mountain slopes by the subtle change in
slope into a level, circular plot that is about 30 meters across, void of any large
vegetation, and typically not too far from a path or road. Large vegetation usually
indicates that the plant has had substantial time to grow and therefore is old; however,
vegetation in these areas would have died and have only had about one century to
regrow. Due to this reason, the general absence of large vegetation (trees) can be used
as one indicator when searching for charcoal hearths. (Mikan and Abrams, 1995) Light
detection and ranging (LIDAR) can also be used to find these hearths as their shape is
very unique.
Charcoal is not a common component of soils and so it has its own unique
influence on soil properties. Various studies have found increased fertility due to the
increase in calcium and phosphorus abundance, increase pH values, increase cation
exchange capacity (CEC), and decrease bulk density (Oriola and Omofoyewa, 2013
and Nigussie and Kissi, 2011). The low density of the charcoal aids in lowering the
overall bulk density of the soil. Charcoals complex pore structure is also a factor
because it lowers the mass per volume (Nigussie and Kissi, 2011) Lowered bulk density
is associated with improved infiltration and therefore the increased circulation of
nutrients and water (Borchard, 2014).
Methods

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The collection and analysis for this assessment spanned over multiple months.
The location from which the soil samples were collected from was Catoctin State Park in
Thurmont, Maryland. Using LIDAR data, two charcoal hearths were located and
mapped. These are labeled as Catoctin Mountain Park (CMP) mountain flank north east
(Mfne) and mountain base south east (Mbse). The mountain flanks are areas
characterized by long and complex slopes dominated by transported colluvium and few
rock outcrops. Further down the slope is the mountain base. It has a decrease in slope
gradient with more coarse rock fragments and a thick apron of colluvium (Wysocki et al,
2012). At each location, one soil pit was dug in each charcoal hearth and one control
soil pit was dug outside the charcoal hearth about 15 meters away. The soil profile was
assessed using a field book and up to three clods were taken from each soil horizon to
be used for bulk density analysis.
The clods were brought back to be evaluated for bulk density. The method used
to calculate bulk density included scanning the clod with a three dimensional scanner,
which is less tedious than the paraffin film method (Rossi et al, 2008). The volume was
then attained using a program called Geomagic (3D Systems, Inc. 2013). The clods
were scanned under field wet conditions. After the volume was determined, the clods
were oven dried and weighed for their total weight and weight of gravels. A 10mm sieve
was used to separate out the gravels. Bulk density (ρb) was then calculated using the
formula:
ρb=

Wc−Wg
Wg
Vc−(
)
2.65

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Wc represents the weight of the whole, oven dried clod, W g represents the weight
of the gravels, and Vc represents the volume of the clod. 2.65gm/cc accounts for the
specific gravity of quartz. The average bulk density between the 3 clods at each horizon
was calculated and used for analysis.
Results
At the site of CMP Mfne, the bulk density of the control pit was generally lower
than that of the charcoal hearth. The bulk density of the hearth at the very top horizon of
0 to11 cm averaged 0.72 g/cm3 and it then increased to 1.53 g/cm3 at 11 to 16cm (Table
1). The bulk density remained high into the deeper depths. The bulk density of the
control pit also increased around 9 cm. In the control pit, the bulk density of the top
horizon of 0 to 2cm was 0.76 g/cm3, followed by 0.60 g/cm3 from 2 to 9cm, and 1.21
g/cm3 from 9 to 26cm (Table 1).
At the site of CMP Mbse, the bulk density of the control pit did not vary
substantially from that of the charcoal hearth. The bulk density of the O horizon in the
control pit, measuring 0 to 5 cm, had a bulk density of 0.56 g/cm 3. This was followed by
a bulk density of 0.89 g/cm3 from 5 to 16cm. The bulk density increased to 1.5 g/cm 3 at
16 to 27cm and remained high into deeper depths (Table 2). The bulk density in the top
horizon of 0 to 15cm in the charcoal hearth measured 0.66 g/cm 3. It then increased to
1.75 g/cm3 at the depth of 15 to 23cm. This higher bulk density continued into deeper
depths (Table 2).
Discussion
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The general trend of the findings does not support the hypothesis that charcoal
lowers the bulk densities of soils. Soil horizons of the O-horizon and A-horizon varied
very little between the pits. The deeper horizons, generally starting with the B-horizon
around 10cm deep at the CMP Mfne site, showed higher bulk densities in the charcoal
hearths than in that of the control pits. Compaction may have developed due to the
human activity occurring at the surface prior to the burning as the workers leveled and
flattened the landscape of the mountain slope. At the site of CMP Mbse, both the
charcoal hearth and the control pit measured lower bulk densities at the surface and an
increase to bulk densities higher than 1.0 g/cm 3 starting at 15 to 16cm deep.
Charcoal can influence many different properties of the forested area other than
just bulk density. A study of the Western Highland Rim Forest in Tennessee found
values of calcium, magnesium, and CEC that were significantly higher in the charcoal
hearths than that of the non-hearths at depths of 0 to 15 cm (Hart et al., 2008). They
also found no significant difference in tree species richness, evenness, and diversity.
Other studies, such as one in southeastern Pennsylvania, found similar results in
relation to the calcium, magnesium and CEC but found significantly lower species
diversity (Mikan and Abrams, 1995). Mikan and Abrams also found significantly reduced
bulk density and increased pore space in the soils of the charcoal hearths. The
increased pore space supports better infiltration. The noteworthy differences in bulk
density between the charcoal hearths and control hearths might therefore be linked with
other soil properties and ecological dynamics.
Conclusion

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This study found no conclusive evidence that charcoal lowers the bulk density of
soils. Further research is needed to better develop an understanding on the extent to
which charcoal effects bulk density in relation with other soil properties. The depth to
which soil properties are effected may be linked to the intensity and duration of the fires
through which the charcoal developed initially. It may also depend on the classification
of the soil or the extent of weathering processes in the geographical region.

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References:

Borchard, N., B. Ladd, S. Eschemann, D. Hegenberg, B. M. Moseler, & W. Amelung,
2014. Black carbon and soil properties at historic charcoal production sites in
Germany. Geoderma 232-234: 236-242.
Glaser, B., L. Haumaier, Guggenberger, & W. Zech, 2001. The 'Terra Preta'
phenonenon: a model for sustainable agriculture in humid tropics.
Naturwissenschaften 88: 37-41. doi:10.1007/s001140000193
Hart, J. L., S. L. Van de Gevel, W. K. Clatterbuck, & M. Clatterbuck, 2008. Legacy of
charcoaling in western highland rim forest in Tennessee. American Midland
Naturalist 159: 238-250.
Maddox, N. 2013. The Promise (and Uncertainties) of Biochar. CSA News 4-9.
doi:10.2134/csa2013-58-9-1
Mikan, C., & M. Abrams 1995. Altered forest composition and soil of historic charcoal
hearths in southeastern Pennsylvania. Canadian Journal of Forest Research, 25:
687-696.
Nigussie, A. & E. Kissi 2011. Effects of Charcoal Production on Soil Properties in
Southwestern Ethiopia. Middle East Journal of Scientific Research, 9(6): 807813.
Oriola, E. & O. Omofoyewa 2013. Impact of charcoal production on nutrients of soils
under woodland savanna part of Oyo State, Nigeria. Journal of Environment and
Earth Science, 3: 46-53
Rossi, A. M., D. R. Hirmas, R. C. Graham, & P. D. Sternberg, 2008. Bulk Density
Determination by Automated Three-Dimensional Laser Scanning. Soil Science of
America Journal, 72: 1591-1593.
3D Systems, Inc. 2013. Geomagic Design X User Guide [computer software] Geomagic
Solutions
Wysocki, D. A., P. J. Schoenberger, D. R. Hirmas, & H. E. Lagarry. 2012.
Geomorphology of soil landscapes . p. 29 (1-26). In Huang et al (eds). Handbook
of soil science: properties and processes 2nd edition. CRC Press, Boca Raton,
FL.

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Tables and Charts:
0
10
20
30
40

Depth (cm)

50
Control

60

Hearth

70
80
90
100
0.4

0.6

0.8

1

1.2

1.4

1.6

1.8

Bulk Density (g/cm3)
Table 1. Changes in bulk density with depth between the control pit and charcoal hearth at the mountain
flank north east site in Catoctin Mountain Park.

9

0

20

40

Depth (cm)

60
Control
Hearth

80

100

120
0.4

0.6

0.8

1

1.2

1.4

1.6

1.8

2

Bulk Density (g/cm3)

Table 2. Changes in bulk density and depth between the control pit and charcoal hearth at mountain base
south east site in Catoctin Mountain Park.

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