Soil acidity and liming

Soil pH is a useful indicator of the relative acidity or alkalinity of a soil. The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14, and the soil is assigned a value from the pH scale to describe the acidity or alkalinity. Since pH 7 falls midway along the scale, pH values that are equal to 7 are said to be neutral. However, pH values that fall below 7 are acidic, while pH values above 7 are alkaline.

By definition, the pH of a soil is the measurement of the concentration of hydrogen ions in soil water. Recall that the hydrogen ion is an acid cation. The greater the concentration of hydrogen ions in the soil water solution, the lower the pH. In return, the lower the pH value, the greater the acidity of the soil will be. The concentration of hydrogen ions in the soil solution is directly proportionate to and in equilibrium with the hydrogen ions retained on the soil’s cation exchange complex. Thus, the hydrogen ions retained by clay particles replenish, or buffer, the hydrogen ions in soil water.

Table 1. pH of some common items.

Item Most acid soils Orange juice Acid rain Fresh milk Mild soap solution

pH 4.0 - 6.0 3.4 - 4.0 3.0 - 5.0 6.3 - 6.6 8.5 - 10.0

Item Lemon juice Vinegar Clean rain water Blood plasma

pH 2.2 - 2.4 4.0 - 4.5 5.5 - 5.7 7.2 - 7.4

Source: Hue, N.V. and Ikawa, I. Acid Soils in Hawaii: Problems and Management. CTAHR.

Figure 3. pH values of common substances.

Soil pH is an important soil property, because it affects the chemical, biological, and physical processes of the soil. Thus, pH is often considered the “master variable” of soil. Its importance in nutrient management cannot be understated. To understand the significance of pH, its effects are listed below:

Effects of soil pH:

BIOLOGICAL ACTIVITY AND PROCESSES • • Determines the abundance of soil microorganism Determines which plant species will grow .NUTRIENT AVAILABILITY • • Controls the availability of the essential nutrients Availability of nitrogen. calcium. magnesium. sulfur. and molybdenum is limited under acidic conditions Figure 4. sodium. The effect of soil pH on the availability of essential plant elements. phosphorus. Greater nutrient availability is indicated by thickened lines. whereas narrow lines indicate a decrease in availability.

• Active acidity is the quantity of hydrogen ions that are present in the soil water solution. The following is a list of causes which are common in Hawaii: • Release of hydrogen atoms under natural chemical processes in the soil o o o • Atmospheric carbon dioxide reacts with water to form carbonic acid Organic molecules react with water and cause acid dissociation Oxidation of ammonium nitrogen. or aggregation. exchangeable or residual. high pH can disrupt soil structure. or sources.• Low soil pH slows the biological transformation of ammonium to nitrate PHYSICALLY • Indirectly. Origins of acidity There are a multiple origins of soil acidity. The active pool of hydrogen ions is in equilibrium with the exchangeable hydrogen ions that are held on the . products of decomposition • • Reaction of aluminum cations with water (a process known as hydrolysis) Natural Deposition o o • Lightning deposits acidic HNO3 Volcanic activity deposits acidic H2SO4 Human Factors o o o Oxidation of applied synthetic ammonium based fertilizers Oxidation of nitrogen compounds in applied animal manures and/or sewage sludge Deposition of acid rain (HNO3 and H2SO4) caused by industrial pollution Pools of Soil Acidity There are three general pools. of acidity: active. and iron Accumulation of organic matter and subsequent release of fulvic and humic acid. sulfur.

Buffering capacity The quantity of aluminum and hydrogen in each of the 3 pools of acidity is not permanently fixed. As a result. For example. such as an electron probe. the relative amounts of aluminum and hydrogen can change. exchangeable acidity. it is the ability of the soil to resist change in pH. • The second pool. the acid cations of the CEC replenish the soil solution. Thus. as aluminum and hydrogen are removed from soil solution. The soil is then buffered against pH change. This pool most readily affects plant growth. Likewise. aluminum and hydrogen. (See base saturation discussion. finely-textured clay soils tend to have greater buffering capacities than coarse-textured soils. the soil is said to have a buffering capacity. refers to the amount of acid cations. As a rule of thumb. minerals containing aluminum and hydrogen dissolve and release these cations as they are removed from the exchangeable pool. Active acidity may be directly determined using a pH meter. When the CEC of a soil is high but has a low base saturation. occupied on the CEC.) • Residual acidity comprises of all bound aluminum and hydrogen in soil minerals. OUTLINE OF BUFFERING REACTIONS: • • Exchangeable acidity will buffer changes in active acidity Residual acidity will buffer changes in exchangeable and active acidity Each soil has a unique buffering capacity. Buffering capacity is the ability of the soil to resist change. Rule of Thumb • Finely-textured clay soils tend to have greater buffering capacities than coarse-textured soils .soil’s cation exchange complex. In the case of acidity. the soil becomes more resistant to pH changes. aluminum and hydrogen of one pool will replenish the aluminum and hydrogen of another pool as these acid cations are removed. it will require larger additions of lime to neutralize the acidity. Thus. as aluminum and hydrogen moves from pool to pool. Out of all pools. Instead. residual acidity is least available.

Recall that 90% of Hawaii’s soils fall into this category. As a result. such as lime. that must be added to correct soil acidity. Soils that have high buffering capacities require larger amounts of liming resources to raise the pH to a target value than soils with low buffering capacities. . most Hawaii soils largely buffer soil acidity. This has great implications on nutrient management since buffering capacity determines the amount of resources.

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