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If I were to bury something 10 feet (~3 metres) underground, with loose soil on top, would the ground naturally compact itself over time, until whatever I had buried has dirt tightly pressing against it on all sides?

What if I buried it 50 feet (~15 metres) underground?

If it exists, what is this compaction process called and how does it happen?

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  • $\begingroup$ It depends in part on what you bury. If you bury a body (don't worry, I won't tell), organisms in the soil will eat the body, reducing the mass of the body, causing the soil above to sink fairly quickly. If you bury a rock, I don't think you'd see much compaction going on, in fact, if you pack the soil tightly above the rock, tamping it down, it might actually rebound as roots and works work through it. Before modern techniques like ground penetrating radar, one way to search for burred bodies was to look for roughly body sized dips in the soil. $\endgroup$ – userLTK Sep 16 '15 at 8:35
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Soil is a collection of various sized minerals grains, of various types of minerals produced by the weathering of rock. Typical soil minerals are clays, silts and sands.

The properties and behavior of different soil types depends of the composition of the soil: the proportion of clays, silts and sand in a soil. Sandy soils are well draining and clayey soils are sticky.

Between the grains of minerals that comprise a soil are spaces, called pores or pore spaces. The pores can be filled with either water or air, depending the location of water tables and wetting events like rain, snow melts or other forms of water inundation.

The density of a soil is dependent on the degree of compaction of the soil. For to a soil to be compacted, a stress has to be applied to the soil to realign the grains of soil which reduces the total volume of the pores and reduces the amount of air within the pores.

Consolidation of a soil occurs when pore space is reduced and water in a soil is displaced due to an applied stress.

Regarding having something buried and soil compacting around it over time, yes that will occur but it is a question of how much stress the soil experiences, the duration of time and the nature of the soil - sandy or clayey. Something buried for a day without any stresses not much will happen. But, something buried for thousands of years with people and animals walking over it, rain falling on the soil, vibrations from nearby human activity and an occasional earthquake all add to the stresses the soil will experience and increases the degree of compaction or consolidation over time.

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    $\begingroup$ Also, some soils have enough bioturbation to slow or reverse physical compaction. Worms, ants, termites, rodents can not only rearrange the soil but mix it with porous organic material. $\endgroup$ – cphlewis Sep 21 '15 at 6:43
  • $\begingroup$ What about if the dirt is loose (clay soil filled with lots of air pockets) and it is undisturbed by foot traffic. Will weather like the force of rain drops break these particles apart and mix in with the rain water and then settle into cracks, and on top of other dirt particles, when the water evaporates creating a more compacted ground? $\endgroup$ – eaglei22 Jul 12 '17 at 16:54
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From Bjørlykke (2003) Compaction (consolidation) of sediments, in Encyclopedia of Earth Science:

Compaction may be defined as the process by which the sediment volume is reduced and the sediment density increased. Sediments change their physical properties after deposition due to the stress from the overburden (gravitational compaction) and as a result of biological or chemical reactions involving dissolution and precipitation of minerals. In some sediments compaction of amorphous materials like organic material (kerogen) and biogenic silica (Opal A) also play an important role. All natural processes modifying sediments after deposition are in geological literature referred to as diagenesis (q.v.) and this term also includes compaction processes. Soil engineers use the term compaction to describe densifications on the laboratory and in the field by vibrations of mechanical equipment to reduce the pore volume and consolidation for the expulsion and flow of water in soils.

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