Four-decade responses of soil trace elements to an aggrading old-field forest: B, Mn, Zn, Cu, and Fe.
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In the ancient and acidic Ultisol soils of the Southern Piedmont, USA, we studied changes in trace element biogeochemistry over four decades, a period during which formerly cultivated cotton fields were planted with pine seedlings that grew into mature forest stands. In 16 permanent plots, we estimated 40-year accumulations of trace elements in forest biomass and O horizons (between 1957 and 1997), and changes in bioavailable soil fractions indexed by extractions of 0.05 mol/L HCl and 0.2 mol/L acid ammonium oxalate (AAO). Element accumulations in 40-year tree biomass plus O horizons totaled 0.9, 2.9, 4.8, 49.6, and 501.3 kg/ha for Cu, B, Zn, Mn, and Fe, respectively. In response to this forest development, samples of the upper 0.6-m of mineral soil archived in 1962 and 1997 followed one of three patterns. (1) Extractable B and Mn were significantly depleted, by -4.1 and -57.7 kg/ha with AAO, depletions comparable to accumulations in biomass plus O horizons, 2.9 and 49.6 kg/ha, respectively. Tree uptake of B and Mn from mineral soil greatly outpaced resupplies from atmospheric deposition, mineral weathering, and deep-root uptake. (2) Extractable Zn and Cu changed little during forest growth, indicating that nutrient resupplies kept pace with accumulations by the aggrading forest. (3) Oxalate-extractable Fe increased substantially during forest growth, by 275.8 kg/ha, about 10-fold more than accumulations in tree biomass (28.7 kg/ha). The large increases in AAO-extractable Fe in surficial 0.35-m mineral soils were accompanied by substantial accretions of Fe in the forest's O horizon, by 473 kg/ha, amounts that dwarfed inputs via litterfall and canopy throughfall, indicating that forest Fe cycling is qualitatively different from that of other macro- and micronutrients. Bioturbation of surficial forest soil layers cannot account for these fractions and transformations of Fe, and we hypothesize that the secondary forest's large inputs of organic additions over four decades has fundamentally altered soil Fe oxides, potentially altering the bioavailability and retention of macro- and micronutrients, contaminants, and organic matter itself. The wide range of responses among the ecosystem's trace elements illustrates the great dynamics of the soil system over time scales of decades.
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Professor in the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences
Richter’s research and teaching links soils with ecosystems and the wider environment, most recently Earth scientists’ Critical Zone. He focuses on how humanity is transforming Earth’s soils from natural to human-natural systems, specifically how land-uses alter soil processes and properties on time scales of decades, centuries, and millennia. Richter's book, Understanding Soil Change (Cambridge University Press), co-authored with his former PhD