Soil acidification from atmospheric ammonium sulphate in forest canopy throughfall


Acid rain commonly has high concentrations of dissolved SO2−4, NH+4 and NO3. Sulphuric and nitric acids are usually considered to be the acidic components, whereas ammonium has a tendency to increase the pH of rainwater1. Ammonium can be transformed to nitric acid in soil but this source of acidity is generally less important than wet and dry deposition of free acids2,3. Here we describe the occurrence of high concentrations of ammonium in canopy throughfall (rainwater falling through the tree canopy) and stemflow in woodland areas in the Netherlands, resulting in acid inputs to soils two to five times higher than those previously described for acid atmospheric deposition2–5. The ammonium is present as ammonium sulphate, which probably forms by interaction of ammonia (volatilized from manure) with sulphur dioxide (from fossil fuels), on the surfaces of vegetation. After leaching by rainwater the ammonium sulphate reaching the soil oxidizes rapidly to nitric and sulphuric acid, producing extremely low pH values (2.8–3.5) and high concentrations of dissolved aluminium in the non-calcareous soils studied. Deposition of ammonium sulphate on the surfaces of vegetation and its environmental consequences are probably most important in areas with intensive animal husbandry.

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van Breemen, N., Burrough, P., Velthorst, E. et al. Soil acidification from atmospheric ammonium sulphate in forest canopy throughfall. Nature 299, 548–550 (1982).

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