Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

A conceptual framework: redifining forests soil's critical acid loads under a changing climate

Informally Refereed
Authors: Steven G. McNulty, Johnny L. Boggs
Year: 2010
Type: Scientific Journal
Station: Southern Research Station
Source: Environmental Pollution, Vol. 158: 2053-2058


Federal agencies of several nations have or are currently developing guidelines for critical forest soil acid loads. These guidelines are used to establish regulations designed to maintain atmospheric acid inputs below levels shown to damage forests and streams. Traditionally, when the critical soil acid load exceeds the amount of acid that the ecosystem can absorb, it is believed to potentially impair forest health. The excess over the critical soil acid load is termed the exceedance, and the larger the exceedance, the greater the risk of ecosystem damage. This definition of critical soil acid load applies to exposure of the soil to a single, long-term pollutant (i.e., acidic deposition). However, ecosystems can be simultaneously under multiple ecosystem stresses and a single critical soil acid load level may not accurately reflect ecosystem health risk when subjected to multiple, episodic environmental stress. For example, the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina receive some of the highest rates of acidic deposition in the eastern United States, but these levels are considered to be below the critical acid load (CAL) that would cause forest damage. However, the area experienced a moderate three-year drought from 1999 to 2002, and in 2001 red spruce (Picea rubens Sarg.) trees in the area began to die in large numbers. The initial survey indicated that the affected trees were killed by the southern pine beetle (Dendroctonus frontalis Zimm.). This insect is not normally successful at colonizing these tree species because the trees produce large amounts of oleoresin that exclude the boring beetles. Subsequent investigations revealed that long-term acid deposition may have altered red spruce forest structure and function. There is some evidence that elevated acid deposition (particularly nitrogen) reduced tree water uptake potential, oleoresin production, and caused the trees to become more susceptible to insect colonization during the drought period. While the ecosystem was not in exceedance of the CAL, long-term nitrogen deposition pre-isposed the forest to other ecological stress. In combination, insects, drought, and nitrogen ultimately combined to cause the observed forest mortality. If any one of these factors were not present, the trees would likely not have died. This paper presents a conceptual framework of the ecosystem consequences of these interactions as well as limited plot level data to support this concept. Future assessments of the use of CAL studies need to account for multiple stress impacts to better understand ecosystem response.


McNulty, Steven G.; Boggs, Johnny L. 2010. A conceptual framework: redifining forests soil's critical acid loads under a changing climate. Environmental Pollution, Vol. 158: 2053-2058