In 2004, the US Geological Survey (USGS) and the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) initiated a pilot study that involved collection of more than 1500 soil samples from 221 sites along two continental transects across Canada and the United States. The pilot study was designed to test and refine protocols for a soil geochemical survey of North America. The two transects crossed a wide array of soil parent materials, soil ages, climatic conditions, landforms, land covers and land uses. Sample sites were selected randomly at approximately 40-km intervals from a population defined as all soils of the continent. At each site, soils representing 0 to 5 cm depth, and the O, A, and C horizons, if present, were collected and analyzed for their near-total content of over 40 major and trace elements. Soils from 0–5 cm depth were also collected for analysis of organic compounds. Results from the transects confirm that soil samples collected at a 40-km spacing reveal coherent, continental- to subcontinental-scale geochemical and mineralogical patterns that can be correlated to aspects of underlying soil parent material, soil age and climate influence. The geochemical data also demonstrate that at the continental-scale the dominance of any of these major factors that control soil geochemistry can change across the landscape. Along both transects, soil mineralogy and geochemistry change abruptly with changes in soil parent materials. However, the chemical influence of a soil’s parent material can be obscured by changing climatic conditions. For the transects, increasing precipitation from west to east and increasing temperature from north to south affect both soil mineralogy and geochemistry because of climate effects on soil weathering and leaching, and plant productivity. Regional anomalous metal concentrations can be linked to natural variations in soil parent materials, such as high Ni and Cr in soils developed on ultramafic rocks in California or high P in soils formed on weathered Ordovician limestones in central Kentucky. On local scales, anomalous metal concentrations recognized in soil profiles, such as high P in soils from animal confinement sites, are consistent with local anthropogenic disturbances. At a larger scale, the distribution of Hg across the west to east transect demonstrates that it can be difficult to distinguish between natural or anthropogenic contributions and that many factors can contribute to an element’s spatial distribution.
Only three samples in a subset of seventy-three 0–5 cm depth soil samples from the north to south transect had organochlorine pesticides values above the method detection limit, apparently related to historic usage of the pesticides DDT and dieldrin.