Fundamentally, soil chemistry involves the study of the chemical composition of soil components, their chemical properties, and the reactions that take place between the soil solution and soil solids. It is an extremely dynamic field of study that involves interactions at highly heterogeneous air:water:soil interfaces, between mineral and organic particles and living organisms such as plant roots or microbes, and with the earth’s atmosphere. It is also a field of study that operates from atomic to landscape scales.
Soil chemists may be concerned for example with questions that are geologically based such as phytotoxic concentrations of zinc and cadmium in peat soils from the Manning peatland region of western NY. Others are concerned with questions that are influenced by climate such as the possibility of carbon sequestration by soils exposed to increased atmospheric CO2, or the management of salt accumulation in soils from arid regions. Some soil chemistry research is concerned with sustainable nutrient management in agricultural soils and some research is concerned with the fate of pollutants in soils.
Due to the complex, heterogeneous, and dynamic nature of soils for practical purposes much soil chemistry research is empirically based. However, the ultimate goal is to describe the soil system within the bounds of established chemical principles and recent advances in analytical techniques are helping to advance our understanding of molecular scale surface reactions.
The hot arid summers, cold snowy winters, and basin and range geology of Utah have resulted in soils that present many interesting challenges to soil chemists. Among the more obvious issues are high carbonate concentrations and soil salinity. Past mining and industrial activity has resulted in areas of soil contamination. Non-native, invading plant species threaten stands of native plants and we are interested in determining whether particular soil conditions favor the invading species. The soils and climatic conditions found in Utah and the intermountain west will be of increasing relevance to other regions of the world as the predicted expansion of hot arid lands due to climate change occurs.