Effects of air pollution on ecosystems and biological diversity in the eastern United States

Gary M. Lovett, Timothy H. Tear, David C. Evers, Stuart E.G. Findlay, B. Jack Cosby, Judy K. Dunscomb, Charles T. Driscoll, Kathleen C. Weathers

Research output: Chapter in Book/Entry/PoemChapter

146 Scopus citations


Conservation organizations have most often focused on land-use change, climate change, and invasive species as prime threats to biodiversity conservation. Although air pollution is an acknowledged widespread problem, it is rarely considered in conservation planning or management. In this synthesis, the state of scientific knowledge on the effects of air pollution on plants and animals in the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States is summarized. Four air pollutants (sulfur, nitrogen, ozone, and mercury) and eight ecosystem types ranging from estuaries to alpine tundra are considered. Effects of air pollution were identified, with varying levels of certainty, in all the ecosystem types examined. None of these ecosystem types is free of the impacts of air pollution, and most are affected by multiple pollutants. In aquatic ecosystems, effects of acidity, nitrogen, and mercury on organisms and biogeochemical processes are well documented. Air pollution causes or contributes to acidification of lakes, eutrophication of estuaries and coastal waters, and mercury bioaccumulation in aquatic food webs. In terrestrial ecosystems, the effects of air pollution on biogeochemical cycling are also very well documented, but the effects on most organisms and the interaction of air pollution with other stressors are less well understood. Nevertheless, there is strong evidence for effects of nitrogen deposition on plants in grasslands, alpine areas, and bogs, and for nitrogen effects on forest mycorrhizae. Soil acidification is widespread in forest ecosystems across the eastern United States and is likely to affect the composition and function of forests in acid-sensitive areas over the long term. Ozone is known to cause reductions in photosynthesis in many terrestrial plant species. For the most part, the effects of these pollutants are chronic, not acute, at the exposure levels common in the eastern United States. Mortality is often observed only at experimentally elevated exposure levels or in combination with other stresses such as drought, freezing, or pathogens. The notable exceptions are the acidaluminum effects on aquatic organisms, which can be lethal at levels of acidity observed in many surface waters in the region. Although the effects are often subtle, they are important to biological conservation. Changes in species composition caused by terrestrial or aquatic acidification or eutrophication can propagate throughout the food webs to affect many organisms beyond those that are directly sensitive to the pollution. Likewise, sublethal doses of toxic pollutants may reduce the reproductive success of the affected organisms or make them more susceptible to potentially lethal pathogens. Many serious gaps in knowledge that warrant further research were identified. Among those gaps are the effects of acidification, ozone, and mercury on alpine systems, effects of nitrogen on species composition of forests, effects of mercury in terrestrial food webs, interactive effects of multiple pollutants, and interactions among air pollution and other environmental changes such as climate change and invasive species. These gaps in knowledge, coupled with the strong likelihood of impacts on ecosystems that have not been studied in the region, suggests that current knowledge underestimates the actual impact of air pollutants on biodiversity. Nonetheless, because known or likely impacts of air pollution on the biodiversity and function of natural ecosystems are widespread in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, the effects of air pollution should be considered in any long-term conservation strategy. It is recommended that ecologically relevant standards, such as "critical loads," be adopted for air pollutants and the importance of long-term monitoring of air pollution and its effects is emphasized.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Year in Ecology and Conservation Biology 2009
PublisherBlackwell Publishing Inc.
Number of pages37
ISBN (Print)9781573317535
StatePublished - Apr 2009

Publication series

NameAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences
ISSN (Print)0077-8923
ISSN (Electronic)1749-6632


  • Acid deposition
  • Eastern United States
  • Forest
  • Lake
  • Mercury
  • Nitrogen
  • Ozone
  • Stream
  • Sulfur

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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