The response of stream ecosystems in the Adirondack region of New York to historical and future changes in atmospheric deposition of sulfur and nitrogen

Shuai Shao, Charles T. Driscoll, Timothy J. Sullivan, Douglas A. Burns, Barry P. Baldigo, Gregory B. Lawrence, Todd C. McDonnell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


The present-day acid-base chemistry of surface waters can be directly linked to contemporary observations of acid deposition; however, pre-industrial conditions are key to predicting the potential future recovery of stream ecosystems under decreasing loads of atmospheric sulfur (S) and nitrogen (N) deposition. The integrated biogeochemical model PnET-BGC was applied to 25 forest watersheds that represent a range of acid sensitivity in the Adirondack region of New York, USA to simulate the response of streams to past and future changes in atmospheric S and N deposition, and calculate the target loads of acidity for protecting and restoring stream water quality and ecosystem health. Using measured data, the model was calibrated and applied to simulate soil and stream chemistry at all study sites. Model hindcasts indicate that historically stream water chemistry in the Adirondacks was variable, but inherently sensitive to acid deposition. The median model-simulated acid neutralizing capacity (ANC) of the streams was projected to be 55 μeq L−1 before the advent of anthropogenic acid deposition (~1850), decreasing to minimum values of 10 μeq L−1 around the year 2000. The median simulated ANC increased to 13 μeq L−1 by 2015 in response to decreases in acid deposition that have occurred over recent decades. Model projections suggest that simultaneous decreases in sulfate, nitrate and ammonium deposition are more effective in restoring stream ANC than individual decreases in sulfur or nitrogen deposition. However, the increases in stream ANC per unit equivalent decrease in S deposition is greater compared to decreases in N deposition. Using empirical algorithms, fish community density and biomass are projected to increase under several deposition-control scenarios that coincide with increases in stream ANC. Model projections suggest that even under the most aggressive deposition-reduction scenarios, stream chemistry and fisheries will not fully recover from historical acidification by 2200.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number137113
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - May 10 2020


  • Acid deposition
  • Acid neutralizing capacity (ANC)
  • Adirondacks
  • Biogeochemical model
  • PnET-BGC
  • Target loads (TLs)

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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