EGU General Assembly 2023
© Author(s) 2023. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

What is Soil? – Addressing challenges due to interdisciplinary differences in the understanding of the word soil

Margit Kurka
Margit Kurka
  • University of Graz, Department of Geography and Regional Science, Graz, Austria (

Soil is defined in different ways, depending on the scientific discipline and a project’s scope. Understanding these differences is key to facilitate clear communication of subsurface conditions within interdisciplinary project teams and allow a comprehensive presentation of results towards a broader audience. The goal of herein presented research is to find differences and analogies in discipline-dependent definitions of soil, outline resulting challenges and suggest possible solutions.

Definitions of the word soil were reviewed and analyzed in discipline-specific dictionaries of the Oxford reference dictionary series and international standards in regard to soil classifications (i. e. ISO and ASTM). Additionally, a survey was performed among professionals from different disciplines, including, but not limited to pedology, geology, engineering, geomorphology and chemistry. The survey aimed at finding out (i) how the word soil is defined by representatives of different disciplines, (ii) if there are divergent understandings between and within disciplines, (iii) if the various interpretations result in problems in interdisciplinary research and (iv) if and what kind of solutions are needed. The survey was filled out by sixty-two, mostly senior-level professionals from the private sector as well as universities and research institutions.

Together with the results of the analysis of dictionaries and international standards, the answers to the survey showed that there are recognizable differences in the understanding of the word soil and that the majority of the survey participants sees a need to find solutions to how these can be addressed, especially for interdisciplinary projects. It was found that consense among the project team and a clear and comprehensive definition of soil, as it is understood within in a specific project, is required as a minimum from the on-start of a project. Additionally, based on the results of the definitions given in literature as well as in the survey, typical definitions of soil are categorized according to discipline (e. g. soil science, geology, engineering) and a comprehensive summary of terminology and vocabulary is presented in regard to possible synonyms for the word soil. Both approaches aim to assist in defining the word soil by providing a simple terminological framework, in which the project’s detailed definition can be integrated. This framework is flexible enough to be extended to other relevant disciplines (e. g. agricultural science, forestry, law).

How to cite: Kurka, M.: What is Soil? – Addressing challenges due to interdisciplinary differences in the understanding of the word soil, EGU General Assembly 2023, Vienna, Austria, 24–28 Apr 2023, EGU23-12277,, 2023.