The embanked floodplains of the lower Rhine river in the Netherlands contain large amounts of heavy metals, which is a result of many years of deposition of contaminated overbank sediments. The metal pollution varies greatly between the various floodplain sections as well as in vertical direction within the floodplain soil profiles. The present contribution describes the key processes producing the spatial variability of the metal pollution in floodplain soils: (1) spatial patterns of the concentrations and deposition of Cd, Cu, Pb and Zn during a single flood, which have been determined from samples collected after a high-magnitude flood event; (2) the pollution trends of the lower Rhine over the past 150 years, which were reconstructed on the basis of metal concentrations in sediments from small ponds within the floodplain area. During the flood the largest metal depositions (0.03 g/m2 Cd, 0.7 g/m2 Cu, 1.1 g/m2 Pb and 5.0 g/m2 Zn for the Rhine) occurred along the natural levees, decreasing to about one third of these values at larger distance from the river. Deposition of heavy metals occurred since the end of the nineteenth century. Periods of maximum pollution occurred in the 1930s and 1960s, when Cu, Pb and Zn concentrations were about 6–10 times as high as background values.
The resulting metal distribution in the floodplain soil profiles is illustrated by means of typical examples. Maximum metal concentrations in floodplain soils vary from 30 to 130 mg/kg for Cu, from 70 to 490 mg/kg for Pb, and from 170 to 1450 mg/kg for Zn. The lowest metal pollution is found in the distal parts of floodplain sections with low flooding frequencies, where average sedimentation rates have been less than about 5 mm/a. The largest metal accumulations occur in low-lying floodplain sections where average sedimentation rates have been more than 10 mm/a.