Metal fate and partitioning in soils under bark beetle-killed trees

Lindsay A. Bearup, Kristin M. Mikkelson, Joseph F. Wiley, Alexis K. Navarre-Sitchler, Reed M. Maxwell, Jonathan O. Sharp, John E. McCray

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Recent mountain pine beetle infestation in the Rocky Mountains of North America has killed an unprecedented acreage of pine forest, creating an opportunity to observe an active re-equilibration in response to widespread land cover perturbation. This work investigates metal mobility in beetle-impacted forests using parallel rainwater and acid leaches to estimate solid-liquid partitioning coefficients and a complete sequential extraction procedure to determine how metals are fractionated in soils under trees experiencing different phases of mortality. Geochemical model simulations analyzed in consideration with experimental data provide additional insight into the mechanisms controlling metal complexation. Metal and base-cation mobility consistently increased in soils under beetle-attacked trees relative to soil under healthy trees. Mobility increases were more pronounced on south facing slopes and more strongly correlated to pH under attacked trees than under healthy trees. Similarly, soil moisture was significantly higher under dead trees, related to the loss of transpiration and interception. Zinc and cadmium content increased in soils under dead trees relative to living trees. Cadmium increases occurred predominantly in the exchangeable fraction, indicating increased mobilization potential. Relative increases of zinc were greatest in the organic fraction, the only fraction where increases in copper were observed. Model results reveal that increased organic complexation, not changes in pH or base cation concentrations, can explain the observed differences in metal partitioning for zinc, nickel, cadmium, and copper. Predicted concentrations would be unlikely to impair human health or plant growth at these sites; however, higher exchangeable metals under beetle-killed trees relative to healthy trees suggest a possible decline in riverine ecosystem health and water quality in areas already approaching criteria limits and drinking water standards. Impairment of water quality in important headwater streams from the increased potential for metal mobilization and storage will continue to change as beetle-killed trees decompose and forests begin to recover.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)348-357
Number of pages10
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - Oct 5 2014
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pollution
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry


  • Bark beetle infestation
  • Forested ecosystem regulation
  • Metal mobility
  • Soil chemistry


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