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Soil Structure: The Roles of

Sodium and Salts


Dr. Jim Walworth
Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science
University of Arizona
AZ 1414

July 2006
The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension

Soil clay particles can be unattached to one another


(dispersed) or clumped together (flocculated) in
aggregates. Soil aggregates are cemented clusters
of sand, silt, and clay particles.
Dispersed Particles

Flocculated Particles

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Flocculation is important because water moves mostly


in large pores between aggregates. Also, plant roots
grow mainly between aggregates.

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In all but the sandiest soils, dispersed clays plug soil


pores and impede water infiltration and soil drainage.

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Most clay particles have a negative electrical charge. Like


charges repel, so clay particles repel one another.

Negatively charged
clay particle

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Negatively charged
clay particle

A cation is a positively charged molecule. Common soil


cations include sodium (Na+), potassium (K+), magnesium
(Mg2+), and calcium (Ca2+).
Cations can make clay particles stick together (flocculate).

+
Negatively charged
clay particle

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Negatively charged
clay particle

Flocculating Cations
We can divide cations into two categories
Poor flocculators
Sodium

Good flocculators
Calcium
Magnesium

Relative Flocculating
Power

Ion
Sodium

Na+

1.0

Potassium

K+

1.7

Magnesium

Mg2+

27.0

Calcium

Ca2+

43.0
Sumner and Naidu, 1998

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Flocculating Power of Cations


Cations in water attract water molecules because of their charge, and become
hydrated.
(+)
Water molecule is
polar: (+) on one end,
(-) on the other end

(+)

Hydrated cation

(-)

Cations with a single charge and large hydrated radii are the poorest flocculators.
Cation

Charges per
molecule

Hydrated radius
(nm)

Relative
flocculating power

Sodium

0.79

1.0

Potassium

0.53

1.7

Magnesium

1.08

27.0

Calcium

0.96

43.0

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Sodium Adsorption Ratio


The ratio of bad to good flocculators gives an indication of
the relative status of these cations:
+

+
+

Na+

++ ++ ++
++ ++ ++ ++

Ca2+ and Mg2+

Mathematically, this is expressed as the sodium adsorption ratio or SAR:

[Na+]
SAR =

[Ca2+] + [Mg2+]

where concentrations are expressed in mmoles/L


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Electrical Conductivity
Ions in solution conduct electricity, so the total amount of
soluble soil ions can be estimated by measuring the
electrical conductivity (EC) of a soil water extract.

EC is measured in units of conductance over a known distance:


deci-Siemens per meter or dS/m
Soil with a high EC is salty; soil with a low EC is not.

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Aggregate stability (dispersion and flocculation)


depends on the balance (SAR) between (Ca2+ and Mg2+)
and Na+ as well as the amount of soluble salts (EC) in
the soil.
Na+

Ca2+ and Mg2+


++ ++ ++
++ ++ ++ ++

+
+

SAR

EC

Lower EC

Higher EC

Flocculated
soil

Dispersed
soil
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Soil particles will flocculate if concentrations


of (Ca2+ + Mg2+) are increased relative to the
concentration of Na+ (SAR is decreased).

Na+
+
+

Ca2+ and Mg2+


++
+
++ + +
++ + +
++
++
++
+
++

SAR

EC

Flocculated
soil

Dispersed
soil
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Ca2+ and Mg2+

Soil particles will disperse if


concentrations of (Ca2+ + Mg2+) are
decreased relative to the concentration
of Na+ (SAR is increased).

++
++ +
+

Na+
SAR

+
+

EC

Flocculated
soil

+
+

Dispersed
soil
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Soil particles will flocculate if the


amount of soluble salts in the soil
is increased (increased EC),
even if there is a lot of sodium.

Na+
+
+

+
+

+
+

Ca2+ and Mg2+


++
+
++ + +
++ + +
++
++
++
+
++

SAR

EC

Lower EC

Flocculated
soil

Higher EC

Dispersed
soil
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Ca2+ and Mg2+

Soil particles may disperse if the


amount of soluble salts in the soil is
decreased (i.e. if EC is decreased).

++
++
++

Na+

SAR

EC

Lower EC

Higher EC

Flocculated
soil

Dispersed
soil
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If soils are close to the tipping point between flocculation and dispersion,
the quality of irrigation water will influence aggregate stability. If irrigation
water infiltrates, and rain water does not, this indicates that the soil is close
to the tipping point.
Na+
+
+

+
+

+
+

Ca2+ and Mg2+


SAR

++
++++

If soils are irrigated with clean water (with low


EC), soil EC will decrease, which can
destabilize aggregates. Irrigation water will
infiltrate slowly.

++

++
++
++
++++
++++
+
+
++

Lower EC

EC

Higher EC
Ca2+ and Mg2+

Flocculated
soil

++

++
++

Na+
SAR

EC

Soils irrigated with saline water (with high EC)


will generally have good structure, and water
will infiltrate rapidly. However, salts can
accumulate and damage plants unless
properly managed.

Lower EC

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Higher EC

Dispersed
soil

Soils can be classified by the amount of soluble salts (EC)


and sodium status (SAR). This classification can tell us
something about soil structure.

Soil Classification EC
Normal
<4

SAR
<13

Condition
Flocculated

Saline

>4

<13

Flocculated

Sodic

<4

>13

Dispersed

Saline-Sodic

>4

>13

Flocculated

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Observe your soil sodic soils often crack


when dry

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Gypsum
CaSO4

Increasing soluble calcium improves


aggregate stability in soils with poor
structure.
Na+
+
+

Ca2+

SO42-

++
+
++ + +
++ + +
++
++
++
+
++

SAR

EC

Flocculated
soil

Dispersed
soil
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Apply gypsum before leaching salts out of soils


susceptible to dispersion (the amount of gypsum
needed can be determined by a soil test). Replacing
sodium with calcium before
leaching will stabilize soil
22+
SO4
structure. Ca

Na+ Na+ Na+


- - - - Na+
- - - Na+
+
Na
Na+
+
Na

Ca++
Ca++
- - - - - - - Ca++
Ca++
Na+
Na+
Na+
Na+

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Na+
Na+
Na+

Na+

Sulfuric acid* can be used instead of gypsum on calcareous


(CaCO3 containing) soil only.
Sulfuric acid dissolves calcium carbonate in the soil

H 2 SO4 CaCO3 CO2 H 2 O CaSO4


and makes gypsum!
*

Sulfuric acid is extremely dangerous and should only be handled


by trained personnel.
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Elemental sulfur can also be used


as an alternative to gypsum on
calcareous soils
Soil microbes convert sulfur into sulfuric acid

S O CO H O H SO CH O
H2SO4 dissolves calcium carbonate and makes gypsum
Conversion to sulfuric acid takes time
several weeks
faster in warm soils

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Manage soil structure

Be aware of the quality of irrigation water. Water with high levels of


sodium (high SAR) will tend to destabilize soil.
Have irrigation water analyzed for SAR and EC or ask your water
provider for analyses.
If you have high sodium irrigation water, the water and/or the soil may
need amendments such as gypsum or sulfuric acid.

Observe your soil.


If water infiltrates very slowly, or if rain water infiltrates more slowly than
irrigation water, the soil may have a sodium problem.
Sodium impacted soils may noticeably crack when dry.

Analyze your soil.


Laboratory analysis can tell you the soil EC and SAR or ESP.

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cals.arizona.edu/pubs/crops/az1414
Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture,
James A. Christenson, Director, Cooperative Extension, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, The University of Arizona.
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