Natural and anthropogenic processes contributing to metal enrichment in surface soils of central Pennsylvania

A. M.L. Kraepiel, A. L. Dere, E. M. Herndon, S. L. Brantley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


Metals in soils may positively or negatively affect plants as well as soil micro-organisms and mesofauna, depending on their abundance and bioavailability. Atmospheric deposition and biological uplift commonly result in metal enrichment in surface soils, but the relative importance of these processes is not always resolved. Here, we used an integrated approach to study the cycling of phosphorus and a suite of metals from the soil to the canopy (and back) in a temperate watershed. The behavior of elements in these surface soils fell into three categories. First, Al, Fe, V, Co, and Cr showed little to no enrichment in the top soil layers, and their concentrations were determined primarily by soil production fluxes with little influence of either atmospheric inputs or biological activity. Second, P, Cu, Zn and Cd were moderately enriched in surface soils due to a combination of atmospheric deposition and biological uplift. Among the metals we studied, Cu, Zn and Cd concentrations in surface soils were the most sensitive to changes in atmospheric deposition fluxes. Finally, Mo and Mn showed strong enrichment in the top soil layer that could not be explained strictly by either current atmospheric deposition or biological recycling processes, but may reflect both their unique chemistry and remnants of past anthropogenic fluxes. Mn has a long residence time in the soil partly due to intense biological uplift that retains Mn in the top soil layer. Mo, in spite of the high solubility of molybdate, remains in the soil because of strong binding to natural organic matter. This study demonstrates the need to consider simultaneously the vegetation and the soils to understand elemental distribution within soil profiles as well as cycling within watersheds.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)265-283
Number of pages19
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Mar 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Earth-Surface Processes


  • Atmospheric deposition
  • Biological uplift
  • Metal
  • Pollution
  • Soils


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