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The effects of atmospheric nitrogen deposition in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and southern Wyoming— A synthesis and critical assessment of published results

February 1, 2003

The Rocky Mountain region of Colorado and southern Wyoming receives as much as 7 kilograms per hectare per year ((kg/ha)/yr) of atmospheric nitrogen (N) deposition, an amount that may have caused changes in aquatic and terrestrial life in otherwise pristine ecosystems. The Rocky Mountain National Park, in its role of protecting air-quality related values under provisions of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1977, has provided support for this synthesis and critical assessment of published literature on the effects of atmospheric N deposition. Results from published studies indicate a long-term increase in the rate of atmospheric N deposition during the 20th century, but no region-wide increase during the past 2 decades, although the rate of atmospheric N deposition has increased at three sites east of the Continental Divide in the Front Range region since the mid-1980s. Much of the increase in atmospheric N deposition at all three sites has resulted from an increase in the ammonium concentrations of wet deposition; this suggests an increase in contributions from agricultural areas or from vehicle traffic east of the Rocky Mountains. Lakes at two study sites in the Front Range (Loch Vale and Green Lakes Valley) had NO3- concentrations of 30 to 40 micromoles per liter (µmol/L) during early spring snowmelt and remained at 5 to 10 µmol/L during summer. Retention of N in atmospheric wet deposition in some sub-catchments of these lakes was less than 50 percent, which reflects an advanced stage of N saturation. Nitrate concentrations in surface waters west of the Continental Divide were lower—often less than 10 µmol/L during snowmelt and less than 2 µmol/L during summer -- than surface waters east of the Divide, except in areas such as the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness that receive elevated amounts of atmospheric N deposition of 4 to 5 (kg/ha)/yr. Atmospheric N deposition in the Front Range east of the Divide may have altered the composition of alpine tundra-plant communities and lake diatoms, but additional studies would be needed to definitively demonstrate the hypothesized cause-and-effect relations. Rates of N-mineralization and nitrification in soils of the Front Range have increased in response to increased atmospheric N deposition. Projected future population growth and energy use in Colorado and the west increase the likelihood that the subtle effects of atmospheric N deposition now evident in the Front Range will become more pronounced and widespread in the future. The likelihood of future increased N emissions along the Front Range warrants a continuation of existing long-term precipitation and surface-water chemistry monitoring programs, and an expansion of the networks into areas that receive large amounts of atmospheric N deposition, but currently lack adequate monitoring. Long-term study and expanded sampling are needed to address uncertainties about the effects of atmospheric N deposition on terrestrial plant communities, nutrient limitation in lake plankton, shifts of dominant species within diatom communities, and on amphibian response to episodic surface-water acidification.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2002
Title The effects of atmospheric nitrogen deposition in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and southern Wyoming— A synthesis and critical assessment of published results
DOI 10.3133/wri024066
Authors Douglas A. Burns
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series Number 2002-4066
Index ID wri024066
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization New York Water Science Center

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