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Effects of Acid Rain - Forests

 Image: Forest

Over the years, scientists, foresters, and others have noted a slowed growth of some forests. Leaves and needles turn brown and fall off when they should be green and healthy. In extreme cases, individual trees or entire areas of the forest simply die off without an obvious reason.

After much analysis, researchers now know that acid rain causes slower growth, injury, or death of forests. Acid rain has been implicated in forest and soil degradation in many areas of the eastern U.S., particularly high elevation forests of the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia that include areas such as the Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountain National Parks. Of course, acid rain is not the only cause of such conditions. Other factors contribute to the overall stress of these areas, including air pollutants, insects, disease, drought, or very cold weather. In most cases, in fact, the impacts of acid rain on trees are due to the combined effects of acid rain and these other environmental stressors. After many years of collecting information on the chemistry and biology of forests, researchers are beginning to understand how acid rain works on the forest soil, trees, and other plants.

Acid Rain on the Forest Floor

A spring shower in the forest washes leaves and falls through the trees to the forest floor below. Some trickles over the ground and runs into streams, rivers, or lakes, and some of the water soaks into the soil. That soil may neutralize some or all of the acidity of the acid rainwater. This ability is called buffering capacity, and without it, soils become more acidic. Differences in soil buffering capacity are an important reason why some areas that receive acid rain show a lot of damage, while other areas that receive about the same amount of acid rain do not appear to be harmed at all. The ability of forest soils to resist, or buffer, acidity depends on the thickness and composition of the soil, as well as the type of bedrock beneath the forest floor. Midwestern states like Nebraska and Indiana have soils that are well buffered. Places in the mountainous northeast, like New York's Adirondack and Catskill Mountains, have thin soils with low buffering capacity.

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How Acid Rain Harms Trees

Acid rain does not usually kill trees directly. Instead, it is more likely to weaken trees by damaging their leaves, limiting the nutrients available to them, or exposing them to toxic substances slowly released from the soil. Quite often, injury or death of trees is a result of these effects of acid rain in combination with one or more additional threats.

Scientists know that acidic water dissolves the nutrients and helpful minerals in the soil and then washes them away before trees and other plants can use them to grow. At the same time, acid rain causes the release of substances that are toxic to trees and plants, such as aluminum, into the soil. Scientists believe that this combination of loss of soil nutrients and increase of toxic aluminum may be one way that acid rain harms trees. Such substances also wash away in the runoff and are carried into streams, rivers, and lakes. More of these substances are released from the soil when the rainfall is more acidic.

However, trees can be damaged by acid rain even if the soil is well buffered. Forests in high mountain regions often are exposed to greater amounts of acid than other forests because they tend to be surrounded by acidic clouds and fog that are more acidic than rainfall. Scientists believe that when leaves are frequently bathed in this acid fog, essential nutrients in their leaves and needles are stripped away. This loss of nutrients in their foliage makes trees more susceptible to damage by other environmental factors, particularly cold winter weather.

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How Acid Rain Affects Other Plants

Acid rain can harm other plants in the same way it harms trees. Although damaged by other air pollutants such as ground level ozone, food crops are not usually seriously affected because farmers frequently add fertilizers to the soil to replace nutrients that have washed away. They may also add crushed limestone to the soil. Limestone is an alkaline material and increases the ability of the soil to act as a buffer against acidity.

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