Preprints
https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-2024-1312
https://doi.org/10.5194/egusphere-2024-1312
20 Jun 2024
 | 20 Jun 2024
Status: this preprint is open for discussion.

Plutonium concentrations link soil organic matter decline to wind erosion in ploughed soils of South Africa

Joel Mohren, Hendrik Wiesel, Wulf Amelung, L. Keith Fifield, Alexandra Sandhage-Hofmann, Erik Strub, Steven A. Binnie, Stefan Heinze, Elmarie Kotze, Chris Du Preez, Stephen G. Tims, and Tibor J. Dunai

Abstract. Losses of soil organic matter (SOM) from arable land poses a serious threat to soil fertility and crop yields, and thwarts efforts to conserve soils as carbon sinks to mitigate global warming. Wind erosion can be a major factor in the redistribution of soil fines including SOM, but assessments of its impact have typically been limited by short observation periods of a few years at most. Longer timeframes, extending back to the mid 20th century, may however be probed using the concentrations of radionuclides that were globally distributed by nuclear weapon tests conducted 1950s and early 1960s. The basic concept is that differences in fallout radionuclide (FRN) activities between undisturbed and arable soils can be used to infer soil particle redistribution. In the present work, we have measured activities of 137Cs and 239+240Pu in soils from three agricultural regions of the plains of the South African Highveld. The three regions represent distinct agroecosystems and within each region the temporal length of cultivation varies from zero (i.e., native grassland) to almost 100 years. The sampled plots did not show any evidence of fluvial erosion, allowing the contribution of wind erosion to the loss of soil fines, including SOM, to be investigated. For the cultivated soils, radionuclide activities are found to be less than in adjacent native grassland, and the magnitude of the reduction is strongly correlated with the duration of cultivation. Specifically, the original concentrations of both 137Cs and 239+240Pu are approximately halved after ~25–45 years of cropping. The initial rate loss relative to the undisturbed soils is, however, considerably higher, with ~6 % yr-1 recorded during the first year after native grassland is converted to arable land. We correlate our radionuclide data with previously published SOM contents from the same sampled material and find that the radionuclides are an excellent indicator of SOM decline at the sites we investigate. We conclude that wind erosion can exert a dominant control on SOM loss in arable land of South Africa and by implication at comparable settings on Earth.

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Joel Mohren, Hendrik Wiesel, Wulf Amelung, L. Keith Fifield, Alexandra Sandhage-Hofmann, Erik Strub, Steven A. Binnie, Stefan Heinze, Elmarie Kotze, Chris Du Preez, Stephen G. Tims, and Tibor J. Dunai

Status: open (until 02 Aug 2024)

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  • RC1: 'Comment on egusphere-2024-1312', Anonymous Referee #1, 23 Jul 2024 reply
  • RC2: 'Comment on egusphere-2024-1312', Anonymous Referee #2, 24 Jul 2024 reply
Joel Mohren, Hendrik Wiesel, Wulf Amelung, L. Keith Fifield, Alexandra Sandhage-Hofmann, Erik Strub, Steven A. Binnie, Stefan Heinze, Elmarie Kotze, Chris Du Preez, Stephen G. Tims, and Tibor J. Dunai
Joel Mohren, Hendrik Wiesel, Wulf Amelung, L. Keith Fifield, Alexandra Sandhage-Hofmann, Erik Strub, Steven A. Binnie, Stefan Heinze, Elmarie Kotze, Chris Du Preez, Stephen G. Tims, and Tibor J. Dunai

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Short summary
We measured concentrations of fallout radionuclides (FRNs) in soil samples taken from arable land in South Africa. We find that during the second half of the 20th century CE, the FRN data strongly correlate with the soil organic matter (SOM) content of the soils. The finding implies that wind erosion strongly influenced SOM loss in the soils we investigated. Furthermore, the exponential decline of FRN concentrations and SOM content over time peaks shortly after native grassland is cultivated.