Order Code MB84204
sONGRESSMFS~~1. 1. PICKLE
10th DISTRICT, TEXAS
DOES I T C O N T R I B U T E T O F O R E S T D E C L I N E ?
U P D A T E D 01/24/85
Adefa B a e k i e l
E n v i r o n m e n t and N a t u r a l R e s o u r c e s P o l i c y D i v i s i o n
C o n g r e s s i o n a l Research. S e r v i c e
Some forests in various parts of the world are showing signs of declining
productivity. Although research has attempted to find its cause, a definite
link between acid rain and th'is decline has not yet been established.
research, however, has engendered considerable scientific debate.
debate over acid rain's role in U.S.
forest decline is a source of
controversy in congressional deliberations on whether to legislate emissions
controls and reduce the amount of pollutant that is believed to be a possible
precursor of acid rain -- sulfur oxides.
Should acid rain be implicated in this decline, the debate on emission
reductions could be influenced by the fact that large dollar values may be at
stake. Total value of U.S. forest products in 1977 was approximately $28
A 2% decline, for example, could amount to $560 million.
This minibrief describes the major hypothesis explaining why acid rain may
be contributing to forest decline, along with the major arguments against
For additional information on acid rain and current
legislation for pollutant emissions controls, see IB83016 -- Acid Rain:
Current Issues, and I B 8 3 0 0 5 -- Clean Air Act: An Overview.
Throughout central Europe, the Scandinavian countries, and parts of North
America, some forests are showing signs of damage and decline. These forests
It begins with loss and
first suffer what is called crown dieback.
discoloration of foliage and branches in the crown of the tree, then
progresses downward and inward, decreasing the productive potential of the
There is no conclusive evidence a s to why this phenomenon
occurring, and there i s both scientific and political controversy over
identifying the primary cause.
However controversial identification of a primary cause might be, a
growing portion of the research generally concludes that acid rain is a t
least a contributor to the decline of forests.
Most scientists agree that
although the vulnerability of North American forests to acid rain and other
airborne pollutants has not been fully documented, these pollutants must be
suspected because the characteristics of these high elevation forests cause
them to be receptors of high rates of acid and trace metal inputs and because
of the increase in air pollution over the past few decades.
also hold that no single pollutant is responsible, but rather several
pollutants (including sulfur and nitrogen oxides, heavy metals, and ozone)
acting singly, in combination, or synergistically contribute to the damage
and decline of forests.
Where is Forest Decline Occurring?
A general survey of the countries having forests suffering from crown
dieback serves to give this problem a context. The problem appears to be
most severe in West Germany, where 34% of the forests have been categorized
as damaged, dying, or dead. Czechoslovakia and Poland both report about a
half million hectares of forest damage (a hectare equals 2.471
Romania, approximately 56,000 hectares of a 6.3 million hectare forest have
Twenty-five percent of the fir and 10% of the spruce in
Switzerland are reported damaged.
The United Kingdom, Italy, France, the
Netherlands, Austria, and Yugoslavia have also experienced forest damage.
The forest decline picture in North America is not as severe, widespread,
Most of the affected forests are in the same areas that have
lakes that are sensitive to acid deposition. Soils are sensitive for many of
the same reasons a s lakes: they are in regions recently glaciated, with large
areas of exposed granitic and other noncalcareous bedrock.
These soils are
often thin and have low acid-neutralizing capability. The regions affected
include parts of New York, New England, Ontario, Quebec, the Canadian
maritime provinces, parts of upper Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, parts
of southern Appalachia, including Tennessee and North Carolina and parts of
California, Washington, Oregon and Idaho. It must be remembered, however,
that one cannot conclude that all soils in these regions are always uniform
in their characteristics. Also, soil type is not the only variable that may
elevation, precipitation, watershed and
correlate with lake acidification
genetic characteristics also play a role.
The area in the United States showing the greatest evidence of forest
decline is the Appalachian mountain range.
Red spruce, which
throughout the Appalachians from the Northeast to Georgia, is the species
that seems to be most affected. The most severe damage has been observed in
the high elevations of New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire, where balsam fir
and white birch also show signs of damage.
In Vermont, over half
spruce has been reported dead in a specific area called Camel's Hump.
Similar forest decline symptoms have also been observed in pitch,
shortleaf, and'loblolly pines in the New Jersey Pine Barrens and spruce,
shortleaf pine, hemlock, f.raser fir, hickory, and other species in Tennessee.
Decline of ponderosa and jeffery pine stands in California has been generally
attributed to ozone damage.
The Predominant Hypothesis
Although the fact that forests are declining is indisputable, there is no
conclusive evidence as to the cause of this decline. This is due primarily
to the complexities of the forest ecosystem, which includes associated soils,
air, and aquatic biotas.
Furthermore, the long life cycle of the forest and
the lack of specific data for a complete life cycle complicates this research
The most popular, best documented, and most controversial theory about the
causes of forest decline is that of the German scientist Dr. Bernard Ulrich.
His theory, based on two decades of research, is the basis for much current
research. Many Other theories have been advanced and refined, but Dr.
Ulrich's remains the principal explanation for forest decline in Germany and
Camel's Hump in Vermont and is the focal point for both
Dr. Ulrich believes that acid deposition is the. primary
(but not only)
cause of forest decline and death.
He suggests that an ecosystem goes
through three stages from the time acid deposition begins to when its effects
(1) Pollutants are deposited in dry and wet forms on forest vegetation and
soils and accumulate in the ecosystem. These pollutants are acidic
precursors to acidic) substances, primarily nitrogen and sulphur oxides from
At first, the nitrogen and
fertilizers, and a short-term increase in forest productivity is experienced
because nitrogen or sulphur is usually the limiting growth factor in forest
soils, particularly nitrogen.
The'ecosystem becomes destabilized a s it is continuously subjected to
and accumulates increasing amounts of pollutants.
This destabilization is
caused a s acid percolates through the soil, and base cations
(ions with a
positive charge) essential to the tree's nutrition become displaced by
hydrogen ions from the incoming acids.
These cations, including potassium,
magnesium and calcium, are then leached, or removed, from the rooting zone.
The continuing input of acids causes the soils to become more acidic over
time, with a lowering of the soil pH.
At low pH levels trace elements become
soluble, and the aluminum ion, which is usually tightly held in the soil, is
displaced. Aluminum and other trace elements are then available in the soil
solution to be taken up by the tree or leached out of the soil.
amounts of aluminum, a s well as other trace elements, can be toxic to trees.
The increased amount of aluminum and associated decrease in calcium
affects the fine feeder roots of the tree and inhibits the uptake of water
and nutrients, dehydrating the tree and depriving it of essential nutrients.
This can also affect the ability of the forest to regenerate because of the
effects on the roots of seedlings.
Vegetative effects are the first visible sign that the forest is ill.
Direct pollutant deposition on the foliage and indirect effects through the
soil can cause cellular necrosis, yellowing of the vegetation, and breakdown
of the leaf or needle wax that blocks pores and allows water to evaporate;
thus the tree can dehydrate.
The magnesium a t the center of the cholorophyll
molecule i s used to buffer the sulphur dioxide and is leached from the
vegetati,on. Consequently, the tree's photosynthetic rate and capability is
decreased because of a breakdown of the chlorophyll molecule; color is lost
along with the tree's ability to photosynthesize, or manufacture food and
repair cellular damage.
(3) The effect of this destabilization on individual trees and the
ecosystem is dieback.
It may be seen on taller trees first; then it works
from the outside of the stand towards the center, causing increasing decline
of the stand. This decline can eventually lead to mortality and subsequently
to a new ecosystem with different species that are better adapted to the new,
more acidic, environment.
Major Arguments Against the Hypothesis
Many scientists disagree with the Ulrich theory that acid rain is the
primary cause of forest decline.
These scientists do not believe that
conclusive evidence has been found that completely unravels the complexities
of the problem and that definitively links acid rain with forest dieback and
decline, especially for the decline that is occurring in North America.
main controversy centers around the aluminum mobilization aspect of Ulrich's
theory. Two other factors, drought and natural soil forma'tion Processes. are
also believed by some to be possible causes of this decline, and increased
acidity in certain environments.
Studies of declining spruce and fir have determined that roots were
calcium deficient relative to those of healthy trees, but that healthy and
declining trees contained the same concentrations of aluminum.
the parallel decrease in the fine roots and increase of aluminum in the soil
solution is questioned because some research has found that marked decreases
of roots preceded the increase of aluminum. Finally, declining fir has been
observed on calcaeous soils, which could preclude both the aluminum toxicity
or calcium deficiency theories.
A number of scientists hypothesize that a series of dry summers interfered
with root regeneration and could have promoted forest dieback by predisposing
the trees to acid rain. Drought stress is important because in combination
with other predisposing factors related to site condition it has triggered
forest declines in the past. Core samples show this type of response during
the 1960s in the Northeast United States may have triggered the dieback seen
It has been argued that a recovery usually follows a decline, but a
recovery to the current decline is not yet in sight. Few people believe that
the German forest and the red spruce on Camel's Hump are redeemable.
it is not known which came first - -the drought, which predisposed the tree
to pollutants, or the pollutants, which made the tree more susceptible to
drought or other environmental stresses.
Another theory is that natural weathering and soil formation processes are
more significant in the acidification of soils and waters and the leaching of
nutrients and toxic metals from soils than anthropogenic sulphur and nitric
According to this hypothesis, changing land use patterns
has caused a
example, the return of forests after severe clear-cutting
build-up of organic soil that in combination with the natural weathering
process is causing the acidification of lakes and streams.
Soil acidification i s , in fact, a natural process.
Soil is formed in part
by the decomposition of organic matter.
As organic matter is decomposed,
both organic and inorganic acids are formed.
The most widely found are
organic acids such a s carbonic, humic, fulvic, and tannic.
But these acids are relatively weak and although they can cause some
leaching, they do not account for the low pH values found in many soils.
Inorganic.acids, such a s sulfuric and nitric acids, are much stronger and are
primarily responsible for acidic soil conditions. These strong acids
have been found in acidified lake waters.
same found in acid rain
addition, acidified Lakes have been found above tree line, placing them above
reforested areas, and'watersheds with and without changes in their land use
patterns have been observed to acidify a t equal rates.
Forest decline i s occurring in several areas throughout the world.
Although conclusive evidence cannot yet pinpoint the primary
rain, along with other air pollutants, i s suspected to contribute to the
decline of forests. The hypothesis advanced by Dr. Bernard Ulrich presents
the best documented, but still very controversial, explanation of the role of
acid rain. Many scientists disagree with how acid rain might factor in
forest decline, and several scientists have advanced theories contrary to
that of Dr. Ulrich.
Scientists also differ a s to the effectiveness of
proposed legislation on North American forests:
legislation is not needed because the cause of the problem is
definitively known; others believe that forest decline will continue if
legislation is limited to sulfur dioxide reduction
other a i r pollutants.
U P D A T E - O ~ / ~ ~ /
Research continues t o try to pinpoint the primary cause and
roles that a c i d rain a n d air pollution igeneral play in
the forest decline