This chapter examines alpine soils from a traditional soil science and ecological perspective, with a bias toward the latter. Soil physical and chemical properties are presented, but the soils as a resource for the biota as well as the feedbacks between abiotic and biotic processes are emphasized. Over half a century ago, Hans Jenny (1941) developed a conceptual model of the factors responsible for soil development. Jenny recognized that parent material, climate, topography, and geological and ecological disturbance factors could be viewed as independent phenomena that interact to produce soils. Jenny (1980) subsequently expanded this model to one that was also useful to describe entire ecosystems. To date, I've found no better framework with which to explain soils as true ecosystem characteristics—an entity generated by the interaction of biota with the abiotic environment. Accordingly, the roles that parent materials, topography, climate, biota, and disturbance frequencies have in controlling the structural and functional aspects of alpine soils are discussed. Because each of these five factors of soil formation has the potential to interact with various combinations of the other four factors, the number of possible combinations—and soil types—is surprisingly large, especially when one or more of the five factors exhibits tremendous within-site variability. Certainly the alpine must rank “most heterogeneous” among terrestrial ecosystem types in terms of topography, making this variable particularly important in any discussion of soil characteristics. As will be demonstrated, however, the other four factors also exhibit significant variation that contributes to the complexity of the alpine soil landscape. Soil characteristics emphasized here include those variables that affect and are affected by biotic processes over time scales ranging from a single growing season to decades to centuries. Hence, cation exchange capacity (CEC), soil acidity (pH), soil water content, nutrient content and flux, and carbon storage and flux, are of primary concern. Detailed information about the soils of this region comes primarily from two sources, Scott Burns’s 1980 dissertation on soil distribution and development in the Niwot Ridge-Green Lakes region, and an extensive series of publications by M. I. Litaor. Burns provided classical soil descriptions based on the analysis of 97 extensive soil pit excavations.
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