Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Got calcium? Mineral key to restoring acid rain-damaged forests

Calcium can do much more than strengthen bones. The mineral is a critical nutrient for healthy tree growth, and new research shows that adding it to the soil helps reverse the decades-long decline of forests ailing from the effects of acid rain.

Helicopter distributes calcium pellets throughout research watershed at Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. (Photo courtesy Hubbard Brook Research Foundation)

The paper, published today (Thursday, Sept. 19), in the journalEnvironmental Science and Technology (EST) Letters, and led by John Battles, professor of forest ecology at the University of California, Berkeley, also presents strong evidence that acid rain impairs forest health.
The paper reports on 15 years of data from an ongoing field experiment in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire led by study co-author Charles Driscoll Jr., professor of environmental systems engineering at Syracuse University.

“It is generally accepted that acid rain harms trees, but the value of our study is that it proves the causal link between the chronic loss of soil calcium caused by decades of acid rain and its impact on tree growth,” said Battles. “The temporal and spatial scope of the study – 15 years and entire watersheds – is unique and makes the results convincing.”

The researchers reported that trees in the calcium-treated watershed produced 21 percent more wood and 11 percent more leaves than their counterparts in an adjacent control site. The iconic sugar maple – the source of maple syrup – was the tree species that responded most strongly to the restoration of calcium in the soil.

Acid deposition has altered the calcium cycle in watersheds in the Northeastern United States in ways that are similar to changes observed at Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. The bar graphs in the photos show the differences in calcium (Ca) levels between 1950, bars on the left, and 1995. (Graphic courtesy of Hubbard Brook Research Foundation)

The research site, managed by the U.S. Forest Service, was targeted because of the declining growth rates and unexpected death of trees in the area. Previous measurements of the forest soil showed a 50 percent depletion of calcium.

Acid rain forms when sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides – gases produced from the burning of fossil fuels – react with water molecules in the air. The mountainous regions in the Northeast have thin soils that are already acidic, so they have limited ability to withstand the assaults of nutrient-dissolving acid rain. Moreover, watersheds along the eastern corridor of the United States had been exposed to more acid rain because of the greater number of coal-burning power plants in the region.
The Clean Air Act of 1970 significantly reduced sulfur dioxide emissions, but decades of acid rain already had changed the soil chemistry of many sensitive regions, including the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Adirondacks of New York.

For the Hubbard Brook study, a helicopter spread 40 tons of dry calcium pellets over a 29-acre watershed over several days in October 1999. The calcium was designed to slowly work its way into the watershed over many years.

“This was restoration, not fertilization,” said Battles. “We were only replacing what was lost.”
Researchers monitored the forest over the next 15 years, comparing the treatment area with an adjacent watershed that had the same characteristics, but did not get the added calcium.

Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest with a view of the south-facing experimental watersheds. (Photo courtesy of the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study)
“The treatment increased the forest’s resilience to major disturbances,” said Battles. “The trees in the calcium-treated watershed were able to recover faster from a severe ice storm that hit the region in 1998.”

“This study has important implications that go well beyond the forests of the northeastern United States,” said Dave Schindler, a professor of ecology at the University of Alberta in Canada who was not part of this research. “Similar depletion of soil nutrients by acid precipitation has occurred in much of eastern Canada and Europe. This long-term study indicates that the calcium problem can be reversed, and that is heartening.”

Both Schindler and Battles noted that the high cost of adding calcium to the soil would likely limit its use to targeted watersheds rather than as a treatment for vast areas of affected forests.
“Prevention is always preferable, and with our study’s clear evidence that acid rain is hurting forests, other countries will hopefully be motivated to intervene sooner by implementing air pollution standards to reduce emissions,” said Battles.
Funding from the National Science Foundation helped support this research.

What Is Acid Rain: Tips For Safeguarding Plants From Acid Rain Damage

Acid rain has been an environmental buzzword since the 1980s, even though it started falling from the sky and eating through lawn furniture and ornaments as early as the 1950s. Although common acid rain isn’t acidic enough to burn skin, the effects of acid rain on plant growth can be dramatic. If you live in an acid rain-prone area, read on to learn about safeguarding plants from acid rain.

What is Acid Rain?

Acid rain forms when sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide react with chemicals like water, oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to form sulfuric acid and nitric acid. Water containing these acidic compounds falls back to the earth as rain, harming plants and other immobile objects below. Although the acid from acid rain is weak, normally no more acidic than vinegar, it can seriously alter the environment, damaging plants and aquatic ecosystems.

Does Acid Rain Kill Plants?

This is a straightforward question with a not very straightEnforward answer. Acid rain and plant damage go hand in hand in areas prone to this type of pollution, but the changes to a plant’s environment and tissues are gradual. Eventually, a plant exposed to acid rain will die, but unless your plants are incredibly sensitive, the acid rain unusually potent and frequent or you’re a very bad gardener, the damage is not fatal.

The way that acid rain damages plants is very subtle. Over time, the acidic water alters the pH of the soil where your plants are growing, binding and dissolving vital minerals and carrying them away. As the soil pH falls, your plants will suffer increasingly obvious symptoms, including yellowing between the veins on their leaves.

Rain that falls on leaves can eat away the outer waxy layer of tissue that protects the plant from drying out, leading to the destruction of the chloroplasts that drive photosynthesis. When a lot of leaves are damaged at once, your plant may become very stressed and attract a host of pests and diseases organisms.

Safeguarding Plants from Acid Rain

The best way to protect plants from acid rain is to prevent rain from falling on them, but with larger trees and shrubs this may be impossible. In fact, many experts recommend planting more tender specimens under large trees to protect them from damage. Where trees aren’t available, moving these delicate plants to gazebos or covered porches will do. When all else fails, some thick plastic draped over stakes surrounding the plant can hold off acid damage, provided that you place and remove the covers promptly.

The soil is another matter entirely. If you live in an area where acid rain is common, soil testing every six to 12 months is a good idea. Frequent soil tests will alert you to problems in the soil so you can add extra minerals, nutrients or lime when necessary. Staying one step ahead of acid rain is vital to keeping your plants healthy and happy.

Acid Rain: Do you need to start wearing a rain hat?

Depending on where you live, maybe you've heard of acid rain. Now, acid rain is not pure acid falling from the sky, but rather it is rainfall or atmospheric moisture that has been mixed with elements and gases that have caused the moisture to become more acidic than normal. Pure water has a pH of 7, and, generally, rainfall is somewhat on the acidic side (a bit less than 6). But, acid rain can have a pH of about 5.0-5.5, and can even be in the 4 range in the northeastern United States, where there are a lot of industries and cars.

Causes of acid rain

Power plants produce sulfur dioxide.
Acidic precipitation can be caused by natural (volcanoes) and man-made activities, such as from cars and in the generation of electricity. The precursors, or chemical forerunners, of acid rain formation result from both natural sources, such as volcanoes and decaying vegetation, and man-made sources, primarily emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) resulting from fossil fuel combustion. The burning of fossil fuels (coal and oil) by power-production companies and industries releases sulfur into the air that combines with oxygen to form sulfur dioxide (SO2). Exhausts from cars cause the formation of nitrogen oxides in the air. From these gases, airborne sulfuric acid (H2SO4) and nitric acid (HNO3) can be formed and be dissolved in the water vapor in the air. Although acid-rain gases may originate in urban areas, they are often carried for hundreds of miles in the atmosphere by winds into rural areas. That is why forests and lakes in the countryside can be harmed by acid rain that originates in cities.

Effects of acid rain

Acid-rain damage, Eastern Europe
The environment can generally adapt to a certain amount of acid rain. Often soil is slightly basic (due to naturally occurring limestone, which has a pH of greater than 7). Because bases counteract acids, these soils tend to balance out some of the acid rain's acidity. But in areas, such as some of the Rocky Mountains and parts of the northwestern and southeastern United States, where limestone does not naturally occur in the soil, acid rain can harm the environment.
Some fish and animals, such as frogs, have a hard time adapting to and reproducing in an acidic environment. Many plants, such as evergreen trees, are damaged by acid rain and acid fog. I've seen some of the acid-rain damage to the evergreen forests in the Black Forest of Germany. Much of the Black Forest was indeed black because so much of the green pine needles had been destroyed, leaving only the black trunks and limbs! You also might notice how acid rain has eaten away the stone in some cities' buildings and stone artwork.

Geographic distribution of acid rain

Acidity in rain is measured by collecting samples of rain and measuring its pH. To find the distribution of rain acidity, weather conditions are monitored and rain samples are collected at sites all over the country. The areas of greatest acidity (lowest pH values) are located in the Northeastern United States. This pattern of high acidity is caused by the large number of cities, the dense population, and the concentration of power and industrial plants in the Northeast. In addition, the prevailing wind direction brings storms and pollution to the Northeast from the Midwest, and dust from the soil and rocks in the Northeastern United States is less likely to neutralize acidity in the rain.

Acid rain and stone

Picture of stone sculpture that has been damaged by acid rain and fog.
When you hear or read in the media about the effects of acid rain, you are usually told about the lakes, fish, and trees in New England and Canada. However, we are becoming aware of an additional concern: many of our historic buildings and monuments are located in the areas of highest acidity. In Europe, where buildings are much older and pollution levels have been ten times greater than in the United States, there is a growing awareness that pollution and acid rain are accelerating the deterioration of buildings and monuments.
Stone weathers (deteriorates) as part of the normal geologic cycle through natural chemical, physical, and biological processes when it is exposed to the environment. This weathering process, over hundreds of millions of years, turned the Appalachian Mountains from towering peaks as high as the Rockies to the rounded knobs we see today. Our concern is that air pollution, particularly in urban areas, may be accelerating the normal, natural rate of stone deterioration, so that we may prematurely lose buildings and sculptures of historic or cultural value.

What about buildings?

Many buildings and monuments are made of stone, and many buildings use stone for decorative trim. Granite is now the most widely used stone for buildings, monuments, and bridges. Limestone is the second most used building stone. It was widely used before Portland cement became available in the early 19th century because of its uniform color and texture and because it could be easily carved. Sandstone from local sources was commonly used in the Northeastern United States, especially before 1900. Nationwide, marble is used much less often than the other stone types, but it has been used for many buildings and monuments of historical significance. Because of their composition, some stones are more likely to be damaged by acidic deposition than others. Granite is primarily composed of silicate minerals, like feldspar and quartz, which are resistant to acid attack. Sandstone is also primarily composed of silica and is thus resistant. A few sandstones are less resistant because they contain a carbonate cement that dissolves readily in weak acid. Limestone and marble are primarily composed of the mineral calcite (calcium carbonate), which dissolves readily in weak acid; in fact, this characteristic is often used to identify the mineral calcite.

How does acid precipitation affect marble and limestone buildings?

Acid precipitation affects stone primarily in two ways: dissolution and alteration. When sulfurous, sulfuric, and nitric acids in polluted air react with the calcite in marble and limestone, the calcite dissolves. In exposed areas of buildings and statues, we see roughened surfaces, removal of material, and loss of carved details. Stone surface material may be lost all over or only in spots that are more reactive.
You might expect that sheltered areas of stone buildings and monuments would not be affected by acid precipitation. However, sheltered areas on limestone and marble buildings and monuments show blackened crusts that have spalled (peeled) off in some places, revealing crumbling stone beneath. This black crust is primarily composed of gypsum, a mineral that forms from the reaction between calcite, water, and sulfuric acid. Gypsum is soluble in water; although it can form anywhere on carbonate stone surfaces that are exposed to sulfur dioxide gas (SO2), it is usually washed away. It remains only on protected surfaces that are not directly washed by the rain. Gypsum is white, but the crystals form networks that trap particles of dirt and pollutants, so the crust looks black. Eventually the black crusts blister and spall off, revealing crumbling stone.