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Northern Research Station
One Gifford Pinchot Drive
Madison, WI 53726
(608) 231-9318
(608) 231-9544 TTY/TDD

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Forest Disturbance Processes

Air Pollution and Sustainable Forest Ecosystems

[photo:] An air pollution monitoring site provides data that are used by both researchers and regulators.Research Issue

Although the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 resulted in decreased emissions of sulfate, acidic deposition continues to threaten the health and sustainability of forest ecosystems. Specific concerns related to the effects of acidic deposition on forest soil nutrient availability, and the response of different trees and forest types to these changing nutrient levels.  Some tree species, for example sugar maple and red spruce, may be more susceptible to the effects of low calcium and magnesium levels in the soil.   Elevated atmospheric ozone is another pollutant of concern in the central Appalachian regions, and may threaten Class I Wilderness Areas and other important recreational assets.

Our Research

In our research, we monitor several types of air pollutants affecting the central Appalachians and examine their long-term trends.  These include ozone, sulfur oxides, and nitrogen oxides. We also study the effects of acid deposition, which includes a combination of pollutants (especially sulfur and nitrogen compounds), as it moves through the forest, from tree canopy to the soil and soil solution to streams.  We are studying the effects on nutrient cycling, and tree growth and productivity, and on a number of other ecosystem components.  Much of our research is part of the Fernow Watershed Acidification Study, one of only two whole-watershed acidification studies in the U.S., with complimentary work coming from another experiment associated with the Long-Term Soil Productivity Study.

Expected Outcomes

Our research will improve the current understanding of how forest ecosystems respond to acidic deposition and other air pollutants.  The results inform land managers who make decisions about how to manage and maintain resilient forests within a climate that is changing both physically and chemically.  Our findings also inform policymakers who create legislation and regulations to protect air quality, human health, and ecosystems.

Research Results

Fowler, Zachariah K.; Adams, Mary Beth; Peterjohn, William T. 2015. Will more nitrogen enhance carbon storage in young forest stands in central Appalachia? Forest Ecology and Management. 337: 144-152.

Peterjohn, William T.; Harlacher, Margaret A.; Christ, Martin J.; Adams, Mary Beth. 2015. Testing associations between tree species and nitrate availability: do consistent patterns exist across spatial scales? Forest Ecology and Management. 358: 335-343.

Rose, Lucy A.; Elliott, Emily M.; Adams, Mary Beth. 2015. Triple nitrate isotopes indicate differing nitrate source contributions to streams across a nitrogen saturation gradient. Ecosystems. doi: 10.1007/s10021-015-9891-8.

Adams, Mary Beth; Knoepp, Jennifer D.; Webster, Jackson R. 2014. Inorganic nitrogen retention by watersheds at Fernow Experimental Forest and Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory. Soil Science Society of America Journal. 78(S1): S84-S94.

Argerich, A.; Johnson, S.L.; Sebestyen, S.D.; Rhoades, C.C.; Greathouse, E.; Knoepp, J.D.; Adams, M.B.; Likens, G.E.; Campbell, J.L.; McDowell, W.H.; Scatena, F.N.; Ice, G.G. 2013. Trends in stream nitrogen concentrations for forested reference catchments across the USA. Environmental Research Letters. 8(Art. 014039). 8 p.

Gilliam, Frank S.; Adams, Mary Beth. 2011. Effects of nitrogen on temporal and spatial patterns of nitrate in streams and soil solution of a central hardwood forest. ISRN Ecology. 2011: 1-9.

Kelly, Charlene; Schoenholtz, Stephen; Adams, Mary Beth. 2011. Contrasts in carbon and nitrogen ecosystem budgets in adjacent Norway spruce and Appalachian hardwood watersheds in the Fernow Experimental Forest, West Virginia. In: Medley, C.N.; Patterson, Glenn; Parker, M.J., eds. Observing, studying and managing for change -- Proceedings of the fourth interagency conference on research in the watersheds. Scientific Investigations Rep. 2011-5169. Reston, VA: U.S. Department of Interior, Geological Survey: 121-126.

Adams, Mary Beth; Burger, James A. 2010. Soil nutrients, aboveground productivity and vegetative diversity after 10 years of experimental acidification and base cation depletion. In: Gilkes, R.J.; Prakongkep, N., eds. 10th World Congress of soil science, soil solutions for a changing world; 2010 August 1-6; Brisbane, Australia. Australia: International Union of Soil Scientists: 104-106. [published on DVD]

Elias, Patricia; Burger, James; Connolly, Stephanie; Adams, Mary Beth. 2010. Detecting and monitoring acidic deposition effects on soil chemistry and forest growth on the Monongahela National Forest. In: Rentch, James S.; Schuler, Thomas M., eds. 2010. Proceedings from the conference on the ecology and management of high-elevation forests in the central and southern Appalachian Mountains. 2009 May 14-15; Slatyfork, WV. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-P-64. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station: 209.

Johnson, Brittany A.; Piatek, Kathryn B.; Adams, Mary Beth; Brooks, John R. 2010. Does nitrogen and sulfur deposition affect forest productivity? In: Rentch, James S.; Schuler, Thomas M., eds. 2010. Proceedings from the conference on the ecology and management of high-elevation forests in the central and southern Appalachian Mountains. 2009 May 14-15; Slatyfork, WV. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-P-64. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station: 85-93.

Elias, P.E.; Burger, J.A.; Adams, M.B. 2009. Acid deposition effects on forest composition and growth on the Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia. Forest Ecology and Management. 258: 2175-2182.

Adams, Mary Beth; Kochenderfer, James N.; Edwards, Pamela J. 2007. The Fernow Watershed Acidification Study: Ecosystem acidification, nitrogen saturation and base cation leaching. Water Air Soil Pollution: Focus 7(2007):267-273.

Adams, Mary Beth; DeWalle, David R.; Hom, John L., eds. 2006. The Fernow Watershed Acidification Study. Springer. 279 p.

Edwards, Pamela J.; Williard, Karl W.J. 2006. Declines in soil-water nitrate in nitrogen-saturated watersheds. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 36:1931-1942.

Adams, Mary Beth; Burger, James; Zelazny, Lucian; Baumgras, John. 2004. Description of the Fork Mountain long-term soil productivity: site characterization. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northeastern Research Station. General Technical Report NE-323. 40 p.

Edwards, Pamela, J;, Huber, Cindy; Wood, Frederica. 2004. Ozone exposures and implications for vegetation in rural areas of the central Appalachian Mountains, U.S.A. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 98:157-174.

Research Participants

Principal Investigator

  • Mary Beth Adams, US Forest Service Northern Research Station - Research Soil Scientist
  • Pamela Edwards, US Forest Service Northern Research Station- Research Hydrologist

Research Partners

Last Modified: 05/30/2018