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Research article2024Peer reviewedOpen access

Perspectives on the misconception of levitating soil aggregates

Garland, Gina; Koestel, John; Johannes, Alice; Heller, Olivier; Doetterl, Sebastian; Or, Dani; Keller, Thomas


Soil aggregation is an important process in nearly all soils across the globe. Aggregates develop over time through a series of abiotic and biotic processes and interactions, including plant growth and decay, microbial activity, plant and microbial exudation, bioturbation, and physicochemical stabilization processes, and are greatly influenced by soil management practices. Together, and through feedback with organic matter and primary soil particles, these processes form dynamic soil aggregates and pore spaces, which jointly constitute a soil's structure and contribute to overall soil functioning. Nevertheless, the concept of soil aggregates is hotly debated, leading to confusion about their function or relevancy to soil processes. We argue here that the opposition to the concept of soil aggregation likely stems from the fact that the methods for the characterization of soil aggregates have largely been developed in the context of arable soils, where tillage promotes the formation of distinct soil aggregates that are easily visible in the topsoil. We propose that the widespread use of conceptual figures showing detached and isolated aggregates can be misleading and has contributed to the skepticism towards soil aggregates. However, the fact that we do not always see discrete aggregates within soils in situ does not mean that aggregates do not exist or are not relevant to the study of soil processes. Given that, by definition, soil aggregates consist of any group of soil particles that cohere more strongly to each other than neighboring particles, aggregates may, but do not necessarily need to be, bordered by pore space. Here, we illustrate how aggregates can form and dissipate within the context of undisturbed, intact soils, highlighting the point that aggregates do not necessarily need to have a discrete physical boundary and can exist seamlessly embedded in the soil. We hope that our contribution helps the debate on soil aggregates and supports the foundation of a shared understanding on the characterization and function of soil structure.

Published in

2024, Volume: 10, number: 1, pages: 23-31