16 Jul 2015

The dirt on Saskatchewan soil

Master's student Kendra Purton receives Harry Toop Memorial Prize in Scientific Writing and the U of S Graduate Thesis Award

SASKATOON - Whether from a field, grassland, or even the forest, Kendra Purton is finding remarkable similarities in soils across a section of Saskatchewan - a result that neither she nor fellow soil scientist were expecting to find, and could have drastic implications on soil management at a time of changing climate.

“Regardless of the soil we were looking at, the results were remarkably similar,” said Purton, a master's student at the University of Saskatchewan. “When we looked at five different samples, from different depths, we saw more difference in, say, a 20 cm depth than we saw over a large distance.”

The samples Purton refers to come from locations spanning the forests of west-central Saskatchewan to the grasslands further south, a distance of about 46 km. The samples were tested for soil organic matter (SOM), focusing on different forms of carbon and nitrogen.

A bulk of the testing was done at the world-class soil science testing facility on the Spherical Grating Monochromator (SGM) beamline at the Canadian Light Source. Purton notes that most synchrotron facilities are not keen on getting dirty, but “SGM has worked very hard to ensure the beamline works well with environmental samples.”

Purton, collaborators, and her supervisor, soil scientist Dr. Fran Walley, were incredibly surprised at their results.

“What's remarkable is that we are not detecting differences between land uses,” said Walley. “And these are dramatically different locations… The literature would suggest you would see differences, and we were expecting to see those differences.”

Purton adds that there is a long-standing idea that old SOM is inherently stable, and has a different chemical composition, and no one has ever really questioned that.

“That theory is mostly based on assumptions that have not been verified. So, based on new techniques, it allows us to question those ideas in ways that have not been done previously,” said Purton.

The work has earned her the Harry Toop Memorial Prize in Scientific Writing as well as the U of S Graduate Thesis Award.

“I've always been interested in the interaction between humans and the environment and how climate change is going to affect how we manage soils.”

University of Saskatchewan Master Student Kendra Purton at the Canadian Light Source.
This photo and others available in the CLS image gallery
Cite: Purton, Kendra, et al. "Will changes in climate and land use affect soil organic matter composition? Evidence from an ecotonal climosequence." Geoderma 253 (2015): 48-60.doi:10.1016/j.geoderma.2015.04.007

 

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The CLS is the brightest light in Canada-millions of times brighter than even the sun-used by scientists to get incredibly detailed information about the structural and chemical properties of materials at the molecular level, with work ranging from mine tailing remediation to cancer research and cutting-edge materials development.

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