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Chronic and episodic acidification of streams along the Appalachian Trail corridor, eastern United States

December 12, 2019

Acidic atmospheric deposition has adversely affected aquatic ecosystems globally. As emissions and deposition of sulfur (S) and nitrogen (N) have declined in recent decades across North America and Europe, ecosystem recovery is evident in many surface waters. However, persistent chronic and episodic acidification remain important concerns in vulnerable regions. We evaluated acidification in 269 headwater streams during 2010–2012 along the Appalachian Trail (AT) that transits several ecoregions and is located downwind of high levels of S and N emission sources. Discharge was estimated by matching sampled streams to those of a nearby gaged stream and assuming equivalent daily mean flow percentiles. Charge balance acid‐neutralizing capacity (ANC) values were adjusted to the 15th (Q15) and 85th flow percentiles (Q85) by applying the ANC/discharge slope among sample pairs collected at each stream. A site‐based approach was applied to streams sampled twice or more and a second regression‐based approach to streams sampled once to estimate episodic acidification magnitudes as the ANC difference from Q15 to Q85. Streams with ANC <0 μeq/L doubled from 16% to 32% as discharge increased from Q15 to Q85 according to the site‐based approach. The proportion of streams with ANC <0 μeq/L at low flow and high flow decreased from north to south. Base cation dilution explained the greatest amount of episodic acidification among streams and variation in sulfate (SO42−) concentrations was a secondary explanatory variable. Episodic SO42− patterns varied geographically with dilution dominant in northern streams underlain by soils developed in glacial sediment and increased concentrations dominant in southern streams with older, highly weathered soils. Episodic acidification increased as low‐flow ANC increased, exceeding 90 μeq/L in 25% of streams. Episodic increases in ANC were the dominant pattern in streams with low‐flow ANC values <30 μeq/L. Chronic and episodic acidification remain an ecological concern among AT streams. The approach developed here could be applied to estimate the magnitude and extent of chronic and episodic acidification in other regions recovering from decreasing levels of atmospheric S and N deposition.

Publication Year 2020
Title Chronic and episodic acidification of streams along the Appalachian Trail corridor, eastern United States
DOI 10.1002/hyp.13668
Authors Douglas A. Burns, Todd McDonnell, Karen C. Rice, Gregory B. Lawrence, Timothy Sullivan
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Hydrological Processes
Index ID 70209441
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization New York Water Science Center