Air Pollution and Forest Decline in a Spruce (Picea abies) Forest

Science  19 May 1989:
Vol. 244, Issue 4906, pp. 776-783
DOI: 10.1126/science.244.4906.776


Symptoms of forest decline of spruce in Europe range from needle yellowing and loss to tree and stand mortality. In a study area in northeast Bavaria, West Germany, where forest decline was initially detected, exposure to high concentrations of gaseous pollutants, SO2, NOx, and ozone has had no long-lasting direct effect on needles, and pathogens have only been secondary agents. Deposition of sulfur, nitrate, and ammonium, however, have significantly modified plant nutrition and soil chemistry. Spruce roots apparently take up ammonium rather than nitrate with an antagonistic effect on uptake of Mg. Nitrate left in the soil solution is leached together with sulfate to ground water, accelerating soil acidification and decreasing Ca/Al and Mg/Al ratios in the soil solution. Soil solution chemistry affects root development, and water and nutrient uptake. Had all nutrients become equally deficient, spruce trees probably could have adjusted by retarding their growth. However, canopy uptake of atmospheric nitrogen in addition to root uptake stimulated growth and caused a nitrogen to cation imbalance to develop; this imbalance resulted in the decline symptoms.