Effects of metal pollutants on magnetic and chemical properties of soils and plant biomass: experimental studies in Environmental Magnetism

Birendra Sapkota, University of Windsor


Understanding the interactions and effects of biotic and abiotic factors on magnetic parameter measurements used to assess levels of pollutants requires experimental analysis of potential individual parameters. Using magnetic and chemical measurements, three separate experimental studies were conducted in order to evaluate the separate and combined effects of soil composition, atmospheric exposure, and contaminant levels on soil magnetic susceptibility (MS) measurements, plant growth and metal uptake by plants. Experiment 1 examined the effects of incorporating an artificial Fe-rich contaminant into a synthetic soil on surficial soil magnetic properties and plant growth inside a greenhouse. Periodic measurements of surficial soil MS showed significant decreases in MS values in the three treatments (two levels of Fe-contamination and controls), with the greatest reduction in soils with the most contamination, and the least in controls. Three potential causes were suggested: Fe uptake by plants, magnetic minerals transformation, and downward migration of Fe-particles. Some arguments for the first two causes were discussed; however, the third possibility was separately evaluated in the second and third experiments. In the follow-up study (Experiment 2) conducted to examine the effects of ambient atmospheric pollution on magnetic and chemical properties of soils and plant biomass, the overall surficial soil MS was found to be significantly higher in synthetic soils exposed to a natural atmosphere in comparison to controls placed in a greenhouse. Root biomass samples taken from the exposed soils had much higher trace/heavy metal concentrations. Such increases in soil MS and bioavailability of metals in the exposed soils indicate that atmospheric pollution affected the soil and plants grown in there. Microscopic observations of Fe-rich particles from the post-harvest exposed soil revealed morphologies similar to Fe-containing particulates from power plants and transportation and related sources. Experiment 3 examined the vertical migration behavior of Fe-particles in natural soils, and contaminated soil cores showed magnetic enhancement at depths of 2 to 9 cm, with the Fe-rich particles at that depth having very similar morphologies to the contaminant (magnetite powder) used, suggesting that the contaminant migrated vertically downward in soil at a observable rate, most likely due to infiltration of rainwater.