Estimating Toxic Damage to Soil Ecosystems from Soil Organic Matter Profiles
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Concentrations of particulate and total organic matter were measured in upper soil profiles at 26 sites as a potential means to identify toxic damage to soil ecosystems. Because soil organic matter plays a role in cycling nutrients, aerating soil, retaining water, and maintaining tilth, a significant reduction in organic matter content in a soil profile is not just evidence of a change in ecosystem function, but of damage to that soil ecosystem. Reference sites were selected for comparison to contaminated sites, and additional sites were selected to illustrate how variables other than environmental contaminants might affect the soil organic matter profile. The survey was undertaken on the supposition that environmental contaminants and other stressors reduce the activity of earthworms and other macrofauna, inhibiting the incorporation of organic matter into the soil profile. The profiles of the unstressed soils showed a continuous decrease in organic matter content from the uppermost mineral soil layer (0–2.5 cm) down to 15 cm. Stressed soils showed an abrupt decrease in soil organic matter content below a depth of 2.5 cm. The 2.5–5.0 cm layer of stressed soils–such as found in a pine barren, an orchard, sites contaminated with zinc, and a site with compacted soil–had less than 4 % total organic matter and less than 1 % particulate organic matter. However, damaged soil ecosystems were best identified by comparison of their profiles to the profiles of closely matched reference soils, rather than by comparison to these absolute values. The presence or absence of earthworms offered a partial explanation of observed differences in soil organic matter profiles.
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