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Quantifying biogeochemical heterogeneity in soil systems


Soils are increasingly perceived as complex systems with properties and biogeochemical functions that vary on millimeter scales. Quantitative information about the resulting biogeochemical heterogeneity is needed to improve process knowledge and to render biogeochemical models more mechanistic. Here we demonstrate how standardized arrays of Pt-electrodes can be used to quantify biogeochemical or ‘functional’ soil heterogeneity, defined as the extent to which the soil is subdivided into microenvironments. Our case study confirmed the validity of this approach for a soil sequence consisting of a well-drained, a moderately well drained and a poorly drained Mollisol. We found that (i) variations in soil moisture content are the immediate cause for variations in functional heterogeneity, with (ii) soil porosity influencing rates and the magnitude of change. We posit that the deployment of standardized arrays of Pt-electrodes will offer an affordable option to monitor the general metabolic state of the soil system and simultaneously quantify the functional heterogeneity of underlying processes at any point in time. Such information should be useful to improve quantitative estimates of processes as diverse as trace gas emissions, trace gas consumption, reductive dehalogenation and mobilization of metals in the subsurface biosphere. We recommend that parameterization of functional soil heterogeneity be included in long-term soil monitoring programs such as Superfund Sites, Critical Zone Observatories, Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) and National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) sites.

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