Environmental Science and Pollution Research

, Volume 17, Issue 2, pp 497–504 | Cite as

A universal method to assess the potential of phosphorus loss from soil to aquatic ecosystems

  • Rosemarie PöthigEmail author
  • Horst Behrendt
  • Dieter Opitz
  • Gerhard Furrer


Background, aim, and scope

Phosphorus loss from terrestrial to the aquatic ecosystems contributes to eutrophication of surface waters. To maintain the world's vital freshwater ecosystems, the reduction of eutrophication is crucial. This needs the prevention of overfertilization of agricultural soils with phosphorus. However, the methods of risk assessment for the P loss potential from soils lack uniformity and are difficult for routine analysis. Therefore, the efficient detection of areas with a high risk of P loss requires a simple and universal soil test method that is cost effective and applicable in both industrialized and developing countries.

Materials and methods

Soils from areas which varied highly in land use and soil type were investigated regarding the degree of P saturation (DPS) as well as the equilibrium P concentration (EPC0) and water-soluble P (WSP) as indicators for the potential of P loss. The parameters DPS and EPC0 were determined from P sorption isotherms.


Our investigation of more than 400 soil samples revealed coherent relationships between DPS and EPC0 as well as WSP. The complex parameter DPS, characterizing the actual P status of soil, is accessible from a simple standard measurement of WSP based on the equation \( {\text{DPS}}\left( \% \right) = \frac{1}{{1 + 1.25 \times {\text{WS}}{{\text{P}}^{ - 0.75}}}} \times 100 \).


The parameter WSP in this equation is a function of remaining phosphorous sorption capacity/total accumulated phosphorous (SP/TP). This quotient is independent of soil type due to the mutual compensation of the factors SP and TP. Thus, the relationship between DPS and WSP is also independent of soil type.


The degree of P saturation, which reflects the actual state of P fertilization of soil, can be calculated from the easily accessible parameter WSP. Due to the independence from soil type and land use, the relation is valid for all soils. Values of WSP, which exceed 5 mg P/kg soil, signalize a P saturation between 70% and 80% and thus a high risk of P loss from soil.

Recommendations and perspectives

These results reveal a new approach of risk assessment for P loss from soils to surface and ground waters. The consequent application of this method may globally help to save the vital resources of our terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.


Equilibrium P concentration Eutrophication P loss Risk assessment Soil P saturation Water-soluble P 



This work is based on several research projects that were supported by the Senate department of urban development of Berlin and the German Research Association (DFG). We gratefully thank Marlies Leu, Hanna Winkler, Barbara Finck, and Rüdiger Biskupek for their assistance in laboratory and field and Helena Lademann (deceased) and René Schwartz for their qualified contribution to soil type characterization. We thank Ed Tipping, William H. Casey, Christian Ludwig, Oscar F. Schoumans, and C. Annette Johnson for critical comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rosemarie Pöthig
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Horst Behrendt
    • 1
  • Dieter Opitz
    • 1
  • Gerhard Furrer
    • 3
  1. 1.Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland FisheriesBerlinGermany
  2. 2.ETH Zürich, Department of Environmental SciencesZurichSwitzerland
  3. 3.ETH Zürich, Department of Environmental Sciences, Institute of Biogeochemistry and Pollutant DynamicsZurichSwitzerland

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