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The response of streams to changes in atmospheric deposition of sulfur and nitrogen in the Adirondack Mountains

December 31, 2020

Acidic deposition is the result of upwind sulfur (S) and nitrogen (N) emissions into the atmosphere from human activities. Environmental impacts from acidic deposition across forested landscapes include acidification of soil and drainage water, depletion of available soil nutrient bases, and impacts to and changes in forest and aquatic species composition and biodiversity. Acidic deposition can mobilize aluminum (Al) from soil-to-soil solution and subsequently to drainage water in forms that can be toxic to aquatic life. When exposed to decreasing levels of acidic deposition, which has been occurring in New York since the late 1970s, some soils and drainage waters have become gradually less acidic. Remaining questions relate to effects on stream resources, anticipated resource recovery under increasingly lower levels of deposition, and the levels of deposition (target loads, TLs) needed to reach a range of stream ecosystem recovery targets. Environmental scientists commonly estimate thresholds of air pollutant emissions and resulting atmospheric deposition at which adverse ecological effects are manifested. This analysis is often done using critical loads (CL) and/or TLs, using approaches that account for the spatial and temporal aspects of acidification and recovery. Exceedance represents the extent to which current levels of acidic deposition exceed the level expected to cause ecological harm. The research reported here is intended to help address S and N deposition TLs and ecosystem recovery of Adirondack streams, a resource that has been less thoroughly investigated than lakes. The overarching goal of this work is to highlight key considerations that will help inform decision-makers and ecosystem managers who are responsible for environmental policy in New York State and beyond. Salient aspects of stream TL modeling are discussed with an aim of informing not only scientists, but also policymakers, ecosystem managers, and nonscientists who are required to make decisions related to the effects of acidic deposition on natural ecosystems. Analyses reported herein quantify relations among chemical indicators and metrics of fish community health and biodiversity in streams of the Adirondack Park. This information is used to indicate levels of atmospheric deposition necessary to alleviate harmful effects on fish populations. Results of this investigation provide a framework that can be applied to better understand how modeled stream acid neutralizing capacity (ANC) values that are developed to support TL investigations can be adjusted to reflect high-flow ANC values that may be associated with toxic conditions. Since process models are often calibrated to a low-flow or average flow condition, the magnitude and spatial extent of TL exceedances increase substantially when episodic acidification is considered.

Publication Year 2020
Title The response of streams to changes in atmospheric deposition of sulfur and nitrogen in the Adirondack Mountains
Authors Charles T. Driscoll, Shuai Shao, Timothy J. Sullivan, Todd C. McDonnell, Barry P. Baldigo, Douglas A. Burns, Gregory B. Lawrence
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype State or Local Government Series
Series Title Final Report
Series Number 20-19
Index ID 70215999
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization New York Water Science Center