Characterization of soil profiles and elemental concentrations reveals deposition of heavy metals and phosphorus in a Chicago-area nature preserve, Gensburg Markham Prairie

  • Liliana M. Hernandez Gonzalez
  • Vivien A. Rivera
  • Colin B. Phillips
  • Loren A. Haug
  • Shelby L. Hatch
  • Loren E. Yeager
  • Haebin Chang
  • Jennifer Alvarez
  • Karl J. Gnaedinger
  • William M. Miller
  • Aaron I. PackmanEmail author
Soils, Sec 5 • Soil and Landscape Ecology • Research Article



Gensburg Markham Prairie (GMP), a high-quality tallgrass prairie and wetland in the Chicago area, is surrounded by high-traffic highways and residential communities. Anthropogenic inputs are a concern given observed ecosystem degradation around the periphery of the prairie. To understand soil quality and the potential for habitat degradation in GMP, we evaluated concentrations of metals and phosphorus in soil profiles, identified possible sources of contamination, and assessed the likelihood that contamination would impact the prairie ecosystem.

Materials and methods

We collected 15 intact soil cores (to a depth of 120 cm) and 22 surface soil samples (0–10-cm depth), determined the soil type, and measured pH, organic matter, and concentrations of Pb, Cu, Zn, Mg, Fe, K, Ca, and P using ICP-OES. To quantify soil pollution, we calculated the element enrichment factor (EF) and single element pollution index (SEPI) for each sample. We also used principal component analysis (PCA) to interpret relationships between site variables, elemental concentrations, and sources of metals.

Results and discussion

Heavy metals (Pb, Cu, and Zn) and P were found to accumulate in surface samples. The mean EF values for Pb, Cu, Zn, and P revealed significant enrichment of these elements in the soil profiles. However, SEPI analyses indicate that GMP soils have a low level of contamination. PCA revealed that concentrations are highest for samples with high organic matter content near the ground surface and that Pb, Cu, and Zn have common sources of pollution.


We observed enrichment of Pb, Cu, Zn, and P because of deposition from the urban built environment, but the enrichment levels are low enough that they are not expected to negatively impact the ecosystem of GMP. The detailed soil chemistry data constitute a spatial contamination map that can be used to assess potential long-term impacts on the ecosystem, such as reduction of plant growth and species diversity, and inform site management and biodiversity conservation efforts.


Metals Phosphorus Prairie Soil Wetland 



The authors thank the following people for their help and assistance, especially with the sample collection and analysis: Denzel Akosa, Gabriel Martinez Milian, Alma Bartholow, Julia Standley Pradhan, Adisa Hadzic, Jordan Gurneau, and Diella Packman. We gratefully acknowledge and thank John Legge, who is the Chicago Conservation Director of The Nature Conservancy, and Ron Panzer and Anthony Merisko from Northeastern Illinois University for making this project possible by providing us access to the study site. Sample preparation was performed at the NU General Chemistry Laboratory and elemental analysis at the NU Integrated Molecular Structure Education and Research Center (IMSERC).

Funding information

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) (grant number EAR-1541891), the Illinois Water Resources Center, the Institute for Energy and Sustainability at Northwestern (ISEN), and the Posner Fellowship Program. Liliana M. Hernandez Gonzalez was supported by an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (DGE-1324585).

Compliance with ethical standards

This research does not involve studies with human participants and/or animals.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

11368_2019_2315_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (911 kb)
ESM 1 (PDF 910 kb)
11368_2019_2315_MOESM2_ESM.pdf (1.2 mb)
ESM 2 (PDF 1210 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Liliana M. Hernandez Gonzalez
    • 1
  • Vivien A. Rivera
    • 1
  • Colin B. Phillips
    • 1
  • Loren A. Haug
    • 1
  • Shelby L. Hatch
    • 2
  • Loren E. Yeager
    • 2
  • Haebin Chang
    • 2
  • Jennifer Alvarez
    • 3
  • Karl J. Gnaedinger
    • 4
  • William M. Miller
    • 5
  • Aaron I. Packman
    • 1
    • 5
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of Civil and Environmental EngineeringEvanstonUSA
  2. 2.Department of ChemistryNorthwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA
  3. 3.Department of Environmental SciencesNorthwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA
  4. 4.The Nature ConservancyMarkhamUSA
  5. 5.Department of Chemical and Biological EngineeringNorthwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA

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