The organic carbon content of soil is positively related to the specific surface area (SSA), but large amounts of organic matter in soil result in reduced SSA as determined by applying the Brunauer–Emmett–Teller (BET) equation to the adsorption of N2. To elucidate some of the controlling mechanisms of this relation, we determined the SSA and the enthalpy of N2 adsorption of separates with a density > 1.6 g cm−3 from 196 mineral horizons of forest soils before and after removal of organic matter with NaOCl. Likewise, we investigated these characteristics before and after sorption of increasing amounts of organic matter to four mineral soil samples, oxides (amorphous Al(OH)3, gibbsite, ferrihydrite, goethite, haematite), and phyllosilicates (kaolinite, illite).

Sorption of organic matter reduced the SSA, depending on the amount sorbed and the type of mineral. The reduction in SSA decreased at larger organic matter loadings. The SSA of the mineral soils was positively related to the content of Fe oxyhydroxides and negatively related to the content of organic C. The strong reduction in SSA at small loadings was due primarily to the decrease in the micropores to which N2 was accessible. This suggests preferential sorption of organic matter at reactive sites in or at the mouths of micropores during the initial sorption and attachment to less reactive sites at increasing loadings. The exponential decrease of the heat of gas adsorption with the surface loading points also to a filling or clogging of micropores at early stages of organic matter accumulation. Desorption induced a small recovery of the total SSA but not of the micropore surface area.

Destruction of organic matter increased the SSA of all soil samples. The SSA of the uncovered mineral matrix related strongly to the amounts of Fe oxyhydroxides and the clay. Normalized to C removed, the increase in SSA was small in topsoils and illuvial horizons of Podzols rich in C and large for the subsoils containing little C. This suggests that micropores preferentially associate with organic matter, especially at small loadings. The coverage of the surface of the soil mineral matrix as calculated from the SSA before and after destruction of organic matter was correlated only with depth, and the relation appeared to be linear.

We conclude that mineralogy is the primary control of the relation between surface area and sorption of organic matter within same soil compartments (i.e. horizons). But at the scale of complete profiles, the surface accumulation and stabilization of organic matter is additionally determined by its input.