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. Packman*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Purpose: 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. Conclusions: 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3817-3831
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Soils and Sediments
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 1 2019


  • Metals
  • Phosphorus
  • Prairie
  • Soil
  • Wetland

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Stratigraphy


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