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Acid sulfate soil

Acid sulfate soils are naturally occurring soils, sediments or organic substrates (e.g. peat) that are formed under waterlogged conditions. These soils contain iron sulfide minerals (predominantly as the mineral pyrite) or their oxidation products. In an undisturbed state below the water table, acid sulfate soils are benign. However if the soils are drained, excavated or exposed to air by a lowering of the water table, the sulfides will react with oxygen to form sulfuric acid[1].

Release of this sulfuric acid from the soil can in turn release iron, aluminium, and other heavy metals (particularly arsenic) within the soil. Once mobilized in this way, the acid and metals can create a variety of adverse impacts: killing vegetation, seeping into and acidifying groundwater and water bodies, killing fish and other aquatic organisms, and degrading concrete and steel structures to the point of failure [1].


Acid sulfate soil formation

The soils and sediments which are most prone to becoming acid sulfate soils are those which formed within the last 10,000 years, after the last major sea level rise. When the sea level rose and inundated the land, sulfate in the seawater mixed with land sediments containing iron oxides and organic matter[1]. Under these anaerobic conditions, lithotrophic bacteria such has Thiobacillus ferrooxidans form iron sulfides (pyrite)[1]. Up to a point, warmer temperatures are more favourable conditions for these bacteria, creating a greater potential for formation of iron sulfides. Tropical waterlogged environments, such as mangrove swamps or estuaries, may contrain higher levels of pyrite than those formed in more temperate climates.[2]

The pyrite is stable until it is exposed to air, at which point the pyrite oxidises and produces sulfuric acid. The impacts of acid sulfate soil leachate may persist over a long time, and/or peak seasonally (after dry periods with the first rains). In some areas of Australia, acid sulfate soils that drained 100 years ago are still releasing acid.[3]

Chemical reaction

When drained, pyrite (FeS2) containing soils (also called cat-clays) may become extremely acidic (pH < 4) due to the oxidation of pyrite into sulfuric acid (H2SO4). In its simplest form, this chemical reaction is as follows:

2 FeS2 + 9 O2 + 4 H2O → 8 H+ + 4 SO4= + 2 Fe(OH)3 (solid)[2][4]

The product Fe(OH)3, iron (III) hydroxide (orange), precipi­tates as a solid, insoluble mineral by which the alkali component is immobilized, while the acidity remains active in the sulfuric acid. The process of acidification is accompanied by the formation of high amounts of aluminium (Al+++, released from clay minerals under influ­ence of the acidity), which are harmful to vegetation. Other products of the chemical reaction are:

  1. Hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a smelly gas
  2. Sulfur (S), a yellow solid
  3. Iron(II) sulfide (FeS), a black/gray/blue solid
  4. Haematite (Fe2O3), a red solid
  5. Goethite (FeO.OH), a brown mineral
  6. Iron compounds (e.g. jarosite)
  7. H-Clay (hydrogen clay, with a large fraction of adsorbed H+ ions, a stable mineral, but poor in nutri­ents)

The iron can be present in bivalent and trivalent forms (Fe++, the ferro ion, and Fe+++, the ferri ion respect­ively). The ferro form is soluble, whereas the ferri form is not. The more oxidized the soil becomes, the more the ferri forms will dominate. Acid sulphate soils exhibit an array of colors ranging from black, brown, blue-gray, red, orange and yellow. The hydrogen clay can be improved by admitting sea water: the hydrogen adsorbed will be replaced by the magnesium (Mg) and sodium (Na) present in the sea water.

Geographical distribution

Acid sulfate soils are widespread around coastal regions, and are also locally associated with freshwater wetlands and saline sulfate-rich groundwater in some agricultural areas. In Australia, coastal acid sulfate soils occupy an estimated 40,000 km2, underlying coastal estuaries and floodplains near where the majority of the Australian population lives [5]. Acid sulfate soil disturbance is often associated with dredging, excavation dewatering activities during canal, housing and marina developments.

Acid sulfate soils which have not been disturbed are known as potential acid sulfate soils (PASS); acid sulfate soils which have been disturbed are known as actual acid sulfate soils (AASS).[2]

Impacts of acid sulfate soil

Disturbing potential acid sulfate soils can have a destructive effect on plant and fish life, and on coastal ecosystems. Flushing of acidic leachate to groundwater and surface waters can cause a number of impacts, including:

  • Ecological damage to aquatic and riparian ecosystems through fish kills, increased fish disease outbreaks, dominance of acid-tolerant species, precipitation of iron, etc.
  • Effects on estuarine fisheries and aquaculture projects (increased disease, loss of spawning area, etc).
  • Contamination of groundwater with arsenic, aluminium and other heavy metals.
  • Reduction in agricultural productivity through metal contamination of soils (predominantly by aluminium).
  • Damage to infrastructure through the corrosion of concrete and steel pipes, bridges and other sub-surface assets.

Source: Sammut & Lines-Kelly, 2000.[3]

Agricultural impacts

Potentially acid sulfate soils (also called cat-clays) are often not cultivated or, if they are, planted under rice, so that the soil can be kept wet preventing oxi­dation. Subsurface drainage of these soils is normally not advisable.

When cultivated, acid sulfate soils cannot be kept wet continuously because of climatic dry spells and shortages of irrigation water, sur­face drainage may help to remove the acidic and toxic chemi­cals (formed in the dry spells) during rainy periods. In the long run surface drainage can help to reclaim acid sulfate soils [6]. The indigenous population of Guinea Bissau has thus managed to develop the soils, but it has taken them many years of careful management and toil.

In an article on cautious land drainage [7] the author describes the successful application of subsurface drainage in acid sulfate soils in coastal polders of Kerala state, India. The article can be downloaded from his website].

Also in the Sunderbans, West Bengal, India, acid sulfate soils have been taken in agricultural use [8].

A study in South Kalimantan, Indonesia, in a perhumid climate, has shown that the acid sulfate soils with a widely spaced subsurface drainage system have yielded promising results for the cultivation of upland (sic!) rice, pea nut and soy bean. [9] . The local population, of old, had already settled in this area and were able to produce a variety of crops (including tree fruits), using hand-dug drains running from the river into the land until reaching the back swamps. The crop yields were modest, but provided enough income to make a decent living.

Reclaimed cat-clays have a well developed soil structure, they are well permeable, but infertile due to the leaching that has occurred.

In the second half of the 20th century, in many parts of the world, waterlogged and potentially acid sulfate soils have been drained aggressively to make them productive for agriculture. The results were disastrous[4].The soils are unproductive, the lands look barren and the water is very clear, devoid of silt and life. The soils can be colorful, though.

Acid sulfate soil restoration

By raising the water table, after damage has been inflicted due to over-intensive drainage, the soils can be restored.

The following table gives an example:

Drainage and yield of Malaysian oil palm on acid sulphate soils (after Toh Peng Yin and Poon Yew Chin, 1982)

Yield in tons of fresh fruit per ha:

Year 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71
Yield 17 14 15 12 8 2 4 8 14 19 18 19

Drainage depth and intensity were increased in 1962. The water table raised again in 1966 to counter negative effects.

See also

  • Soil type


  1. ^ a b c d Identification & Investigation of Acid Sulfate Soils (2006), Department of Environment, Western Australia. Retrieved from,84383&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL
  2. ^ a b c Acid Sulfate Soil Technical Manual 1.2 (2003), CSIRO Land & Water, Australia. Retrieved from
  3. ^ a b Sammut, J & Lines-Kelley, R. (2000) Acid Sulfate Soils 2nd edition, Environment Australia, ISBN 0-7347-1208-1. Retrieved from
  4. ^ a b D. Dent, 1986. Acid sulphate soils: a baseline for research and develop­ment. Publ. 39, ILRI, Wageningen, The Netherlands. ISBN 9070260 980. Free download from ILRI-Alterra
  5. ^ Fitzpatrick R. W., Davies P.G., Thomas B. P., Merry R. H., Fotheringham D. G and Hicks W. S. (2002). Properties and distribution of South Australian coastal acid sulfate soils and their environmental hazards. 5th International Acid Sulfate Soils Conference, Tweed Heads, NSW
  6. ^ R.J.Oosterbaan, 1981. Rice Polders Reclamation Project, Guinea Bissau. In: ILRI Annual Report 1980, p. 26–32, ILRI, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
  7. ^ R.J.Oosterbaan, 1992. Agricultural Land Drainage: A wider application through caution and restraint. In: ILRI Annual Report 1991, p.21–35, International Institute for Land Reclamation and Improvement, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
  8. ^ H.S. Sen and R.J. Oosterbaan, 1993. Research on Water Management and Control in the Sunderbans, India. In: ILRI Annual Report 1992, p. 8-26. International Institute for Land Reclamation and Improvement, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
  9. ^ R.J.Oosterbaan, 1990. Review of water management aspects in Pulau Petak (near the town of Bandjermasin, Kalimantan, Indonesia). International Institute of Land Reclamation and Improvement, Wageningen, The Netherlands. View online.

Additional references

  • Sammut, J., White, I. and Melville, M.D. (1996). Acidification of an estuarine tributary in eastern Australia due to drainage of acid sulfate soils. Marine and Freshwater Research 47, 669-684.
  • Sammut, J., Melville, M.D., Callinan, R.B. and Fraser, G. (1995). Estuarine acidification: impacts on aquatic biota of draining acid sulphate soils. Australian Geographical Studies 33, 89-100.
  • Wilson, B.P, White I. and Melville M.D. (1999). Floodplain hydrology, acid discharge and change in water quality associated with a drained acid sulfate soil. Marine and Freshwater Research. 50; 149-157.
  • Wilson, B.P. (2005) Classification issues for the Hydrosol and Organosol Soil Orders to better encompass surface acidity and deep sulfidic horizons in acid sulfate soils. Australian Journal of Soil Research 43; 629-638
  • Wilson, B.P. (2005) Elevations of pyritic layers in acid sulfate soils: what do they indicate about sea levels during the Holocene in eastern Australia. Catena 62; 45-56.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Acid_sulfate_soil". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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