Quantifying sediment transport across an undisturbed prairie landscape using cesium-137 and high resolution topography

James M. Kaste, Arjun M. Heimsath, Matthew Hohmann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

46 Scopus citations


Soil erosion is a global environmental problem, and anthropogenic fallout radionuclides offer a promising tool for describing and quantifying soil redistribution on decadal time scales. To date, applications of radioactive fallout to trace upland sediment transport have been developed primarily on lands disturbed by agriculture, grazing, and logging. Here we use 137Cs to characterize and quantify soil erosion at the Konza Prairie Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site, an undisturbed grassland in northeastern Kansas. We report on the small scale (< 10 m) and landscape scale (10 to 1000 m) distribution of fallout 137Cs, and show significant variability in the concentrations and amounts of 137Cs in soils at our site. 137Cs soil concentrations and amounts typically vary by 10% to 30% on small scales, which most likely represents the spatial heterogeneity of the depositional processes. Landscape scale variability of soil 137Cs was significantly higher than small scale variability. Most notably, soils collected on convex (divergent) landforms had 137Cs inventories of 2500 to 3000 Bq m- 2, which is consistent with the expected atmospheric inputs to the study area during the 1950s and 1960s. Concave landforms, however, had statistically lower inventories of 1800 to 2300 Bq m- 2. The distribution of 137Cs on this undisturbed landscape contrasts significantly with distributions observed across disturbed sites, which generally have accumulations of radioactive fallout in valley bottoms. Because the upslope contributing area at each sampling point had a significant negative correlation with the soil inventory of 137Cs, we suggest that overland flow in convergent areas dominates soil erosion at Konza on time scales of decades. Very few points on our landscape had 137Cs inventories significantly above that which would be predicted from direct deposition of 137Cs on the soil surface; we conclude therefore that there is little net sediment storage on this undisturbed landscape.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)430-440
Number of pages11
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Jun 30 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • Erosion
  • Geomorphology
  • Grassland
  • Konza Prairie
  • Overland flow

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth-Surface Processes


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