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Soil acidification is the buildup of hydrogen cations, also called protons, reducing the soil pH. Chemically, this happens when a proton donor gets added to the soil. The donor can be an acid, such as nitric acid and sulfuric acid (these acids are common components of acid rain). It can also be a compound such as aluminium sulfate, which reacts in the soil to release protons. Many nitrogen compounds, which are added as fertilizer, also acidify soil over the long term because they produce nitrous and nitric acid when oxidized in the process of nitrification.
Acidification also occurs when base cations such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium are leached from the soil. This leaching increases with increasing precipitation. Acid rain accelerates the leaching of these alkali (or base) elements. Plants utilize all these alkali elements as they grow, each important to some aspect of cell tissue development and growth. Where plant material is removed, as when a forest is logged or crops are harvested, the base elements they have taken up are permanently lost from the soil.
Leaf litter on soil
Many plants produce organic acids. Where plant litter accumulates on or is incorporated to the soil, these acids (including acetic acid, humic acid, oxalic acid, and tannic acid) are liberated. This is especially acute in soils under coniferous trees such as pine, spruce and fir, which return fewer base cations to the soil than do most deciduous trees.
Rocks in the soil
Certain parent materials also contribute to soil acidification. Granites and their allied igneous rocks are called "acidic" because they have a lot of free quartz, which produces silicic acid on weathering. Also, they have relatively low amounts of calcium and magnesium. Some sedimentary rocks such as shale and coal are rich in sulfides, which, when hydrated and oxidized, produce sulfuric acid which is much stronger than silicic acid. Many coal spoils are too acidic to support vigorous plant growth, and coal gives off strong precursors to acid rain when it is burned. Marine clays are also sulfide-rich in many cases, and such clays become very acidic if they are drained to an oxidizing state.
Acidification may also occur from nitrogen emissions into the air, as the nitrogen may end up deposited into the soil.
- Aluminium sulfate
- Ammonium nitrate
- Ammonium phosphate
- Ammonium sulfate
- Ferrous sulfate
- Monopotassium phosphate
- Phosphoric acid
- Urea phosphate
- Fenn, M. E.; Huntington, T. G.; McLaughlin, S. B.; Eagar, C.; Gomez, A.; Cook, R. B. 2006. Status of soil acidification in North America Journal of Forest Science 52:3-13.
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