Spatial Variation in Soil Properties among North American Ecosystems and Guidelines for Sampling Designs

Publication Type:
Journal Article
PLoS ONE, Volume 9, p.e83216 (2014)

Soils are highly variable at many spatial scales, which makes designing studies to accurately estimate the mean value of soil properties across space challenging. The spatial correlation structure is critical to develop robust sampling strategies (e.g., sample size and sample spacing). Current guidelines for designing studies recommend conducting preliminary investigation(s) to characterize this structure, but are rarely followed and sampling designs are often defined by logistics rather than quantitative considerations. The spatial variability of soils was assessed across ~1 ha at 60 sites. Sites were chosen to represent key US ecosystems as part of a scaling strategy deployed by the National Ecological Observatory Network. We measured soil temperature (Ts) and water content (SWC) because these properties mediate biological/biogeochemical processes below- and above-ground, and quantified spatial variability using semivariograms to estimate spatial correlation. We developed quantitative guidelines to inform sample size and sample spacing for future soil studies, e.g., 20 samples were sufficient to measure Ts to within 10% of the mean with 90% confidence at every temperate and sub-tropical site during the growing season, whereas an order of magnitude more samples were needed to meet this accuracy at some high-latitude sites. SWC was significantly more variable than Ts at most sites, resulting in at least 10× more SWC samples needed to meet the same accuracy requirement. Previous studies investigated the relationship between the mean and variability (i.e., sill) of SWC across space at individual sites across time and have often (but not always) observed the variance or standard deviation peaking at intermediate values of SWC and decreasing at low and high SWC. Finally, we quantified how far apart samples must be spaced to be statistically independent. Semivariance structures from 10 of the 12-dominant soil orders across the US were estimated, advancing our continental-scale understanding of soil behavior.

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