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Environ Sci Technol. 2013 Aug 20;47(16):9069-76. doi: 10.1021/es400437q. Epub 2013 Aug 12.

Directional phytoscreening: contaminant gradients in trees for plume delineation.

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Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, Missouri University of Science and Technology, Rolla, Missouri, USA.


Tree sampling methods have been used in phytoscreening applications to delineate contaminated soil and groundwater, augmenting traditional investigative methods that are time-consuming, resource-intensive, invasive, and costly. In the past decade, contaminant concentrations in tree tissues have been shown to reflect the extent and intensity of subsurface contamination. This paper investigates a new phytoscreening tool: directional tree coring, a concept originating from field data that indicated azimuthal concentrations in tree trunks reflected the concentration gradients in the groundwater around the tree. To experimentally test this hypothesis, large diameter trees were subjected to subsurface contaminant concentration gradients in a greenhouse study. These trees were then analyzed for azimuthal concentration gradients in aboveground tree tissues, revealing contaminant centroids located on the side of the tree nearest the most contaminated groundwater. Tree coring at three field sites revealed sufficiently steep contaminant gradients in trees reflected nearby groundwater contaminant gradients. In practice, trees possessing steep contaminant gradients are indicators of steep subsurface contaminant gradients, providing compass-like information about the contaminant gradient, pointing investigators toward higher concentration regions of the plume.

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