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IB BIOLOGY SL

Fire Ecology

UPDATED ON - 15 APR 2020
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►= Examiner's comments

 

Fire Ecology

What is the effect of temperature on mineral content and pH in Alfisols?

Summary:

Due to the recent Forest/Bush fires in the wild, an experiment was conducted to observe it's effect on the mineral content and pH of the soil. To avoid any outside influence, the soil was obtained from an unmanaged forested area. It was then placed in a preheated industrial oven for 24 hours. After the pH and Mineral content tests on the heated soil it was observed that there is a progressive fall in the pH livels of the soil and the mineral content increase with temperature.

Index:

 

 

Defining the problem

 

►: The purpose of the investigation is well established.

As Australia has recently been subjected to a large number of severe bush fires it drew my interest to the impact of fire on ecosystems. Fires are a regular part of the ecology of the bush. When the fire burns the vegetation its minerals are returned to the soil with the ash. However, it is not just the vegetation that burns what about the organic matter in the soil itself? The temperatures reached in wildfires can be over 250°C at the surface of the soil and they can be up to 114°C in the top 2.5cm of soil. However, the temperature drops to 59-67°C at 7.5cm. What effect would this have on the mineral characteristics of the soil? I decided to investigate the effect of

►: Scientific context is given

eating local soil samples within this temperature range and test the effect it had on the pH and selected minerals for which there were suitable tests.

Research question

 

►: Research question focussed                                            

What is the effect of temperature (70, 80, 90, 100, and 110°C) on the chemical properties of pH and mineral properties of phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium content of alfisol soil?

Prediction

The increased temperature will combust microbes and organic matter that regulate the bio-geochemical of minerals such as phosphate, nitrates, and potassium in the soil for absorption by plants, thereby increasing the content of minerals in the burnt soil. The same combustion of organic matter will acidify the burnt soil.

Background Research:

Alfisols are soils where some of their minerals have been washed out. They have relatively high fertility though in Australia they are often poor in nitrogen and phosphorus. These soils have mainly formed under hardwood forests and have a subsurface of clays.

 

Nitrogen is present in proteins, vitamins, and chlorophyll. Nitrogen allows for the development of the vegetative activity of the plant and is absorbed by plants as nitrate (N03 - which is derived from the mineralization of organic matter and the application of fertilizers. Moreover, nitrates in water irrigate into the soil. (Hanna Technology - Nitrogen single test).

 

Phosphorus occurs in natural waters as phosphate (P04 3) ions. Phosphate introduction in the soil is caused by waterways and irrigation systems from dams. Soil may be receptive to phosphorus via industry-based runoff pollution. Phosphorus is essential as plants in the contribution to the formation of buds and roots. (Hanna Technology - Phosphorus and phosphate analysis in water) However, excessive amounts of phosphorus are the main cause of eutrophication, which is an abnormal and excessive growth of plants.

 

Potassium is present in tissues responsible for the growth of plants (primary and secondary meristems) (Hanna Technology - Potassium in Agricultural examination). Potassium regulates how much water is absorbed by the roots and in the control of cellular activity. Potassium helps safeguard plants for diseases. The problem of lack of potassium is frequent in alfisol soils.

 

Micro-organisms living in the soil produce complex carbohydrates that the plant uses for energy. Plant enzymes decompose large nutrient molecules, such as fulvic and humic acids, into smaller molecules for plant absorption. Beneficial fungus in the soil (mycorrhizae) act as a substantial secondary root system and help transport these synthesized substances to the plant roots. These biological factors are interdependent on an optimum pH of 6.5 (Guide to Organics and Hydroponics in Gardening).

 

 

Table 1: Variables

 

►: Subject-specific terminology appropriate
►: Scientific context is given

Variable type

Identification

Independent Variable

The temperature of oven regulated at 70°C, 80°C, 90°C, 100°C, and 110°C

Dependent Variable

The concentration of mineral using the Hanna Instruments Agriculture Test Kit

Controlled Variable

Soil samples were taken from the same site

Duration of burning (24 hours)

Origin of soil from one area locally

The ratio of water to the soil in sedimentation (120:960)

The time allowed for soil particles to settle (24 hours)

The soil dried before use. The water content may affect the pH and mineral content in measurement, particularly of the unheated control.

Mass of soil used (120g)

Time for the colour complex to development (30 seconds in mineral tests, 5 minutes for pH tests).

The volume of extract used after sedimentation (2.5cm3)

Amount of universal indicator (3-5 drops)

Mass of reagent used (pre-weighed sachets provided in the kits)

Uncontrolled Variable

The amount of natural sunlight received both before the soil was obtained and during the experiment. Soil areas exposed to sunlight may have more original minerals in the soil, as opposed to soil sourced from areas covered by shade because of greater plant growth.

Original mineral content in soil This will vary with the area and deepness in soil thought the sampling was consistent and the site carefully selected.

Porosity this may affect the efficiency of mineral transfer

Quantity of organic matter soil samples may have varied

 

►: Reliability of data considered

 

Control Experiment: The control experiment incorporated into the design is a condition whereby the soil is sourced directly from the ground and tested for pH, phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium without introducing the independent variable of heat. This control will allow for the comparison between normal soil content and subsequent mineral content to increased heat exposure.

►: valid control experiment

 

Materials

Table 2: Apparatus required to experiment with the associated quantity

Quantity

Apparatus

1

Industrial Oven (110, 100, 90, 80, and 70 degrees C)

1

Electronic Scales +/- 0.001

1

Hanna Technology - HI 3895 Agriculture Test Kit (Chemicals listed in the table below) Colorimetric reference cards, transfer pipette, volumetric reference card, 4 test tubes.

1

Stopwatch

320

Alfisol Soil

5

Large Crucibles

1

500cm3 beaker

1

1000cm3 beaker

1

Protective oven mitts

1

Sharpee© Labelling Marker

1

Spatula

1

Spotting glass

1

5cm3 micropipette

1

Pipette pump

 

 

 

Practical Safety and Risk Assessment Assessment of risk and practical safety precautions are accounted for in the Risk Assessment plan

►: Safety factors considered

Refer to Appendix A - STUDENT ACTIVITY RISK ASSESSMENT and PRAC ORDER FORM

►: The data is only semi-quantitative.
►: Relevant data. ►: Clear, logical presentation. It could be more concise.span style="font-size:18px">►: Method can be repeated.

 

Method

Soil sample

The soil was obtained from an unmanaged forested area. To avoid any outside influence that could have

affected the mineral content, the sample was taken in a zone with no neighbouring farmland and the sample was dug from the first 20cm of soil at least 20m from the track that gave access to the site. The site had no

►: Outside factors controlled

the recent record of burning.

Heating

1. Preheat the industrial oven in a practical set-up room by configuring to the experimental

temperature of 110 degrees C (or 100, 90, 80, 70°C)

2. Transfer measured the mass of soil to the individual crucible and note qualitative observations.

3. Wait until the oven has reached the required temperature, then place the crucible in the oven.

4. Wait 24 hours for the soil to burn

5. Remove the crucible and note qualitative observations (porosity, granularity, etc).

Five samples of soil were heated for each treatment. Three samples were kept unheated as a control.

►: Sufficient data but the data is semi-quantitative. This will weaken the analysis

pH measurement

1. Sample 4g soil and add it to appropriate test tube from agriculture test kit, fill with distilled water until the lower graduation mark is reached (2.5mL).

2. Add the content of the packet labeled HI 3895-pH reagent (inclusive of calcium chloride dehydrate or universal indicator and barium sulfate) to test tube from the test kit.

3. Replace the test tube cap and shake the tube gently for 30 seconds. Use the stopwatch for precise time measurement

4. Allow the sample in a test tube to stand for 5 minutes to ensure color complex development

5. Compare the pH color-card to the sample color. Record sample pH. For optimum measurement, ensure light filtered into the laboratory is maximized, hold color card approximately 2 cm from the sample for comparison against a uniform white background.

Estimating N, P, K levels

1. Zero the balance and add a 120g soil sample to the beaker.

2. Use the ratio of soil to distilled water (225:1800 reduced to 120:960).

3. Allow soil to separate into components; organic matter, clay, silt, etc. for 24 hours to ensure maximum separation undisturbed (the clearer the extract becomes, the better the results of the mineral test)

4. Use a pipette to extract 2.5mL of clear general soil extract and add it to a test tube. (do not transfer soil, avoid agitation of soil sediment, squeeze the bulb of the pipette prior to inserting into soil extract solution)

5. Add contents of specialized reagent for the test (nitrogen - HI 3895-N, phosphorus -HI3895-P, potassium - HI3895-K)

6. Replace and secure the test tube cap on the apparatus. Shake the test tube gently for 30 seconds.

7. Allow the sample in a test tube to stand for 30 seconds for color complex development

8. Match the color appears in the sample to the reference color card using a uniform white background and under uniform lighting.

12. Record qualitative observations, record relevant data.

Ensure safety equipment is worn (laboratory overcoat and safety spectacles)Ensure photographic evidence is recorded for qualitative observation.

Modifications to the method

Rocks were removed from the measured mass in crucibles in order to maximize the amount of soil content in each trial. Rocks do not assist in the transfer of minerals. More Universal indicator was added to some samples in order to produce evidence pH of soil.

 

The test tubes required shaking in order to react the reagents with the soil extract was approximate in the trials. This may have resulted in inconsistent measurements as reagents may not have associated with soil in these shaken more gently compared to those shaken more vigorously.

►: limitations and sources of error discussed.

 

 

Table 4: Tabulated raw data to show the levels of pH, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in the soil after burning at varying temperatures - 70, 80, 90, 100, and 110°C

►: Selects and records raw data but will it permit coherent analysis? ►: Unambiguous presentation ►: Notation correct ►: Conventions respected except for the precision of pH readings.

 

Temperature / °C ±0.1°C

PH and mineral content of alfisol soil

pH

Nitrogen

Phosphorus

Potassium

Control

Trial 1

7.0

TRACE

TRACE

LOW

Trial 2

6.0

TRACE

TRACE

MEDIUM

Trial 3

7.0

TRACE

TRACE

MEDIUM

70

Trial 1

7.0

TRACE

TRACE

LOW

Trial 2

7.0

TRACE

LOW

TRACE

Trial 3

7.0

TRACE

TRACE

LOW

Trial 4

7.0

TRACE

TRACE

TRACE

Trial 5

7.0

TRACE

TRACE

TRACE

80

Trial 1

6.5

LOW

HIGH

HIGH

Trial 2

6.5 LOW LOW HIGH

Trial 3

6.5 LOW LOW HIGH

Trial 4

6.5 LOW MEDIUM HIGH

Trial 5

6.5 LOW HIGH MEDIUM

90

Trial 1

6.5

MEDIUM

TRACE

LOW

Trial 2

6.5

MEDIUM

TRACE

LOW

Trial 3

6.5

MEDIUM

TRACE

LOW

Trial 4

6.5

MEDIUM

TRACE

LOW

Trial 5

6.5

MEDIUM

TRACE

LOW

100

Trial 1

6.0

TRACE

LOW

MEDIUM

Trial 2

6.0

LOW

LOW

MEDIUM

Trial 3

6.0

LOW

TRACE

MEDIUM

Trial 4

6.0

TRACE

TRACE

MEDIUM

Trial 5

6.0

TRACE

TRACE

MEDIUM

110

Trial 1

6.0

TRACE

TRACE

HIGH

Trial 2

6.0

TRACE

TRACE

HIGH

Trial 3

6.0

LOW

TRACE

HIGH

Trial 4

6.0

LOW

TRACE

HIGH

Trial 5

6.0

LOW

TRACE

HIGH

 

 

 

 

 

Table 5: Observations noted in the duration of the experimentation process with associated explanation and implication on results if applicable.

►: Qualitative observations made.
►: Unambiguous presentation
Observation Explanation/ Implication
Grey soil after burning    Discoloration caused by the absence of organic matter regulating soil content - suggests an increase in silt and clay levels which limit the oxygen and carbon dioxide emission and absorption by the soil.
Colour change was evident immediately - did not have to wait The color complex developed immediately in most trials - except nitrogen tests.
Sunlight changed content During sedimentation, the 1000cm3 beaker was placed in the sun for the 90°C trial. This may have influenced the process of mineral separation in soil, as the soil absorbs sunlight.
Different amounts of sediment Vary levels of floating dead organic matter, and clay, silt, etc on bottom of beaker. This may be the result of the source of soil - increased level of the organic matter at levels of soil near the surface, however deeper down, the soil may contain more clay and rocks etc.
Some organic matter transferred in trial The method was to leave organic matter undisturbed when transferring liquid soil extract, however, the micropipette had to penetrate the surface and matter adhered to/ transferred by the pipette to the test tube.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table 7: The averaged results of pH and the overall results of mineral tests at varying temperatures

Temperature / °C ±0.1

pH and minerals

pH

Nitrogen

Phosphorus

Potassium

Unheated

6.7

TRACE

TRACE

MEDIUM

70

7.0

TRACE

TRACE

TRACE

80

6.5

LOW

HIGH

HIGH

90

6.5

MEDIUM

TRACE

LOW

100

6.0

TRACE

TRACE

MEDIUM

110

6.0

LOW

TRACE

HIGH

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

►: Averaging qualitative data has doubtful validity.
►: Uncertainties in the temperature presented but none for the pH measurements.

 

 

 

 

Graphs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

►: Conversion of a qualitative scale into a numerical value is not scientifically valid. There has been no calibration of the color charts other than ordering the results by relative importance.
►: Nevertheless, the bar chart is unambiguously presented and...
►: it permits a visual comparison between the values of the different treatments.
►: Uncertainties not relevant.

 

The graph shows the averaged results obtained from the experiment in testing for minerals - phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium. The graph depicts the mineral content as a result of increased temperature exposure of soil as well as the control (unheated). There appears to be a trend in increasing potassium levels as the temperature increases above 90°C, however, there is no specific pattern for other tested minerals of nitrogen and phosphorus. It appears the optimum temperature to produce the highest content of phosphorus is 80°C, and the optimum for nitrogen is 90°C.    

►: Interpretation is over-optimistic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

►: Evidence of uncertainties but not strong.
►: pH values can be compared to the control treatment.
►: Presentation unambiguous.
►: Respects conventions

This graph shows the average pH values for the soil samples treated at different temperatures along with the control sample (unheated) for comparison. Overall there appears to be a progressive fall in pH levels for the heated samples though there is a bit of variation between the unheated sample and the one heated to 70°C.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The graph shows the averages results obtained from the experiment in testing the pH of burnt soil. The soil was

 

►: This is a negative correlation.

exposed to increasing temperatures and subsequently tested for a decrease (increasingly acidic) pH. The results show that as temperature increases, the pH decreases accordingly - there is a correlation between increasing temperature and acidity of the soil. The linear trend line suggests this correlation. This correlation is supported by the coefficient of determination (R2 value) which is equal to 0.8929. This value is high indicating a good fit with the trend line and it suggests a negative correlation.

►: Limited processing. Correlation of variables revealed by drawing a scatter plot though no correlation coefficient calculated. ►: R2 appropriate here. It also reveals uncertainties. For a linear, the relationship does approximate the correlation coefficient (though this would be negative). ►: Data interpreted and reliability discussed.

 

Conclusion

The data obtained support the idea that the pH of the soil becomes more acidic at higher temperatures. The data suggests that there is an increase in the mineral content with the heating of alfisol soils.

 

Table 7, averages of the raw data, demonstrates the increase of temperature that is directly proportional to an increase in mineral content. At temperatures of 110°C, the potassium levels are highest. However, this trend is not present in all mineral compounds. Nitrate compounds in burnt soil are highest at 90°C .Phosphate molecules in the soil are highest at 80°C. This suggests that at certain temperatures, the mineral content in soils for varying minerals changes, both in quantity and type. The general increase in mineral content is presumed to be a result of the microbe combustion in the soil. Microbes and organic matter store and regulate minerals such as nitrates and phosphates in the soil - in addition to absorption by plants and other organisms. When the soil is exposed to heat, the change in temperature combusts the organic matter, releasing the mineral and resulting in their increased levels. However, this does not suggest that plants are able to use these enriched resources. Naturally, decomposer organisms, such as worms, are able to produce organic compounds and release minerals for plants. Without these decomposers to maintain the cycle, the plants will only have a certain store of minerals. Moreover, despite the increased availability of minerals, plants require other factors of soil such as porosity, which determines water retention. Soil that is subjected to extreme temperatures loses the ability to hold water for plants and organisms - which is why burnt lands are unable to sustain plant growth until revived naturally. However, an application of this is that burnt soil may be mixed in with mineral deficient soil in order to boost mineral levels in the soil for plants. This would enhance the soil's chemical properties and aid the growth of plants. Furthermore, alfisol soils are typically naturally deficient in minerals such as potassium and nitrogen in

Australian regions. 

 

The third graph depicts the change in pH as a result of increasing temperature exposure. There is a good correlation between increasing temperature and decreasing pH. This is supported by the high coefficient of determination, R2 value = 0.8929. Nitrogen minerals exist as nitrates in the soil (N03-). Since the increase in temperature increases the number of nitrates in the soil, the soil will acidify as a result. This is the same

►: Results compared to theory.

in phosphates (Holleman, A - Inorganic Chemistry 2001). It can be predicted that at temperatures exceeding 110°C, its pH will continue to become increasingly acidic - demonstrated by the consistent linear trend line until all the organic matter is combusted.

 

The solubility of minerals in the soil varies with the pH of the soil. Most minerals are readily available at a pH of 6 to 7. Phosphorus is more available at pH 6.5 and below pH 5 aluminium, iron and manganese become more soluble. Aluminium is toxic for many plant species and it is particularly rich in alfisols. So the observed drop in pH with heating could result in some valuable minerals becoming more accessible, to begin with, but a strong drop in pH could make the soil less fertile.

►: Data interpreted.

Reliability

The data collected is reliable with a number of minor omissions. The alfisol soil, which is a typical soil family found in most areas of Australia, is known for a range of physical properties. The results cannot be generalized to all soils as the test conducted on the soil obtained may contain mineral levels different to those of an alfisol soil found in Western Australia. Moreover, it was unreliable to the extent the pH tests are variable in the controls. The water content of the controls may have influenced these results. In the heated samples, the water evaporated off.

►: Limitation of the methodology considered.

The original organic matter in the soil, which influences the mineral content, as well as the plant concentration in the area of the source,  was not recorded. This would be an indication of the general nature of the results to areas containing similar quantities of organic matter. Moreover, the level of sunlight received by the areas where the soil was sampled was not controlled. The intensity of the sunlight will determine the rate of photosynthesis of plants. If the soil is in a particularly shady area, then the photosynthetic activity of plants would be lower than that of plants constantly receiving sunlight. This would result in lower biomass of plants and less organic matter in the soil. A decreased level of photosynthesis could result in the mineral content of the test soil being lower.

 

The experiment repeated trials for the samples which helps to reveal the reliability of the data inconsistency between trials.

The uncertainty associated with the reference cards means that the content of minerals in the soil solution could potentially be half a grade higher or half a grade lower of that identified. Moreover, error in the human visual analysis is significant. The reference cards require observation by the experimenter to a standardized measurement, whereas a measuring probe like a colourimeter may be able to analyze the concentration more objectively.

►: Suggested improvement

Evaluation of the method

There were a number of systematic and random errors associated with the uncertainty of the data which is a limitation to the results.

A systematic error associated with the data is in reference to the colorimetric indications cards. These apparatus are non-numerical - and rely on a comparison between the solution color as a result of the reagent, and a standardized TRACE, LOW, MEDIUM or HIGH reference on the card. This is a limitation to the design whereby the data, excluding pH, cannot be converted into numerical data. Therefore the uncertainty related to the data is half of the smallest increment - for example between HIGH and MEDIUM. This is a large uncertainty as it suggests there may be a different concentration value of the mineral in the solution. A similar problem occurred with the pH tests. This method requires a universal indicator in order to color the soil and compare this subsequent color to a pH reference chart.

►: Reliability of data considered. Important weakness identified, but the candidate contradicts what was attempted in the analysis.

A random error is that the method stated: "Allow soil to separate into components; organic matter, clay, silt, mineral content, etc., for 24 hours to ensure maximum separation undisturbed (the clearer the extract becomes, the better the results of the mineral test)." However, each test was not allowed 24 hours (due to experimentation time restraints), which resulted in a yellow-colored extract, as opposed to a translucent one. This suggests that the results obtained may not have been the optimum indication of mineral content in the burnt soil. Moreover, the time for sedimentation was a maximum of 24 hours. The soil used does not give an indication of the duration of the sedimentation process needed, and therefore the range of time is 30 minutes to 24 hours. It was assumed the 24 hours would be suitable for a complete result.

►: Sources of error identified.

The reagents used as indicators of the minerals were prepared in sachets that were opened and added to the soil aqueous extract. However, the entire quantity was not added in each case due to the difficulty of releasing the chemicals. This may result in a lighter color of the solution, which would demonstrate a qualitative comparison that does not necessarily represent the actual quantity of mineral in the sample.

 

Another random error is that the oven, which controls the temperature of heating, was temporarily opened by other students and the temperature decreased from 110 to 97°C. This is an inconsistent heating process and the trials will require a repeat to ensure accurate results were opened. The temperature drop of 13°C temperature may have had and affect on the experiment.

►: Sources of error identified and impact considered.

Modifications to Experiment

To increase the accuracy of results, there is a professional version of the HI 3895 test kit used to test mineral content in the soil in this experiment. HI 3896 uses a similar methodology to the HI 3895 agriculture test kit, however, uses color compactors and assigns numerical values to the color comparison. This will provide a significantly more measurable basis for the results.

 

Alternatively, an ultraviolet-visible light spectrophotometer may be used to test the unknown concentration compared with a calibration curve created using standard solutions of diluted phosphate stock solution. The spectrophotometer will provide a more accurate measurement compared to the reference card. This maybe applicable to other minerals such as potassium compounds and nitrate compounds.

 

Hanna Instruments, the company that manufactured the agriculture test kit used to test the content of minerals and pH in the soil, additionally produces a product called a phosphate checker. The instrument uses a silicon photocell that works similar to an ultraviolet-visible spectrophotometer, however, these tests for orthophosphates only using the reagents and no calibration is required to determine the concentration. The apparatus measurement ranges from 0.00 to 2.50ppm with an uncertainty of 4.0%. The apparatus is manufactured for nitrates and potassium compounds, in addition to phosphates.

 

In reference to the pH tests, a pH probe may be used to determine a more accurate measurement of the pH of the soil. The method for using this apparatus is extracting a specific mass of soil and adding distilled water. This solution may be filtered using filter paper and funnel. The pH probe, after calibrating in electrolytes and cleaning in distilled water, will measure the pH of the solution accurately.

►: Realistic improvements suggested

A modification to the experiment could be manipulating the independent variable as time rather than temperature. The experiment has demonstrated that temperature change will influence the mineral content in the soil, however, a derivative of the experiment could investigate the effect of the time duration of burning. This would provide a more ecologically valid representation of bush fire examples - uncontrolled and controlled fires.

►: suggests a feasible extension.

A further variation of the experiment may investigate the effect of lower temperatures, since the higher temperatures combust all organic matter/large majority of organic matter, lower temperatures that will destroy only some of the organic matter.

Table 9: Summary of modifications to experimental design

Modification Explanation
UV-Vis Spectrophotometer Accurate measure the concentration of phosphate ions in soil extracts
Phosphate checker

Works in a similar effect to UV-Vis apparatus does not require calibration

curve - measures phosphate concentration directly.

HI 3896

Precise agriculture test kit compared to HI 3895 - assigns numerical

values

Lower temperatures

Maintain higher content of minerals with regulation by remaining organic

matter.

Duration of heating

Change the independent to time -> better reflects the ecological factor of

fire and soil.

pH probe

Used to measure the pH of the solution - filter soil extract and measure

pH

Control sample water content Air-dry the control soil at room temperature

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

►: Most safety factors considered except for the chemicals used which would be expected in this investigation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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