New Concern about Acid Rain: Trees' Immune Systems May Be Damaged by Pollution. (Environment)

By Cristol, Hope | The Futurist, November-December 2002 | Go to article overview

New Concern about Acid Rain: Trees' Immune Systems May Be Damaged by Pollution. (Environment)


Cristol, Hope, The Futurist


Acid rain may be even more damaging to forests than previously thought: Not only does acid rain wilt and destroy trees' leaves and needles, but new research shows it also leaches their life-sustaining metal nutrients from topsoil.

The news comes from University of California-Riverside scientists who experimented on trees in Chile's pristine forests--far removed from industrial pollutants--to learn how forest ecosystems are supposed to work if left alone. The scientists were surprised to discover that trees obtain their essential metal elements (such as potassium, magnesium, and calcium) almost exclusively from atmospheric deposits in the soil, not from weathered rocks buried deep in the soil. And they were alarmed to learn just how small a pool of these nutrients is available to nourish the trees.

"The small size of this upper soil nutrient pool has important implications for industrially influenced forests in the northeastern United States and in Europe," says UC-Riverside earth scientist Martin Kennedy. "These forests may be more vulnerable to the effects of acid rain than we had previously thought."

The scientists' findings reveal acid rain's potential to leach more of these vital metal elements from the topsoil than are being deposited, and the result can be injurious or even deadly to trees. In Germany, trees are already dying from magnesium deficiency caused by acid rain's nutrient leaching.

Acid rain occurs when sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, byproducts from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, react in the atmosphere to form acidic compounds. The resulting mild solution of sulfuric acid and nitric acid becomes acid rain when it falls to the ground with precipitation--rain, fog, and snow. While scientists have long known that acid rain weakens trees by damaging their leaves, limiting the nutrients available to them, and exposing them to toxic substances slowly released from the soil, new research from the University of Vermont (UVM) shows that acid rain weakens many trees' immunity to environmental stress. …

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