Examination and
 Description of Soils

Soil Survey Manual -- Chapter 3, Examination and Description of Soils, Designations for Horizons and Other Layers

Designations for Horizons and Other Layers

Soils vary widely in the degree to which horizons are expressed. Relatively fresh geologic formations, such as fresh alluvium, sand dunes, or blankets of volcanic ash, may have no recognizable genetic horizons, although they may have distinct layers that reflect different modes of deposition. As soil formation proceeds, horizons may be detected in their early stages only by very careful examination. As age increases, horizons generally are more easily identified in the field. Only one or two different horizons may be readily apparent in some very old, deeply weathered soils in tropical areas where annual precipitation is high.

Layers of different kinds are identified by symbols. Designations are provided for layers that have been changed by soil formation and for those that have not. Each horizon designation indicates either that the original material has been changed in certain ways or that there has been little or no change. The designation is assigned after comparison of the observed properties of the layer with properties inferred for the material before it was affected by soil formation. The processes that have caused the change need not be known; properties of soils relative to those of an estimated parent material are the criteria for judgment. The parent material inferred for the horizon in question, not the material below the solum, is used as the basis of comparison. The inferred parent material commonly is very similar to, or the same as, the soil material below the solum.

Designations show the investigator's interpretations of genetic relationships among the layers within a soil. Layers need not be identified by symbols for a good description; yet, the usefulness of soil descriptions is greatly enhanced by the proper use of designations.

Designations are not substitutes for descriptions. If both designations and adequate descriptions of a soil are provided, the reader has the interpretation made by the person who described the soil and also the evidence on which the interpretation was based.

Genetic horizons are not equivalent to the diagnostic horizons of Soil Taxonomy. Designations of genetic horizons express a qualitative judgment about the kind of changes that are believed to have taken place. Diagnostic horizons are quantitatively defined features used to differentiate among taxa. Changes implied by genetic horizon designations may not be large enough to justify recognition of diagnostic criteria. For example, a designation of Bt does not always indicate an argillic horizon. Furthermore, the diagnostic horizons may not be coextensive with genetic horizons.

Three kinds of symbols are used in various combinations to designate horizons and layers. These are capital letters, lower case letters, and Arabic numerals. Capital letters are used to designate the master horizons and layers; lower case letters are used as suffixes to indicate specific characteristics of master horizons and layers; and Arabic numerals are used both as suffixes to indicate vertical subdivisions within a horizon or layer and as prefixes to indicate discontinuities.

Chapter 3 - Table of Contents