• Journal Article

Terrestrial acidification and ecosystem services: effects of acid rain on bunnies, baseball, and Christmas trees


Irvine, I. C., Greaver, T., Phelan, J., Sabo, R. D., & Van Houtven, G. (2017). Terrestrial acidification and ecosystem services: effects of acid rain on bunnies, baseball, and Christmas trees. Ecosphere, 8(6), [01857]. DOI: 10.1002/ecs2.1857


Often termed "acid rain," combined nitrogen and sulfur deposition can directly and indirectly impact the condition and health of forest ecosystems. Researchers use critical loads (CLs) to describe response thresholds, and recent studies on acid-sensitive biological indicators show that forests continue to be at risk from terrestrial acidification. However, rarely are impacts translated into changes in "ecosystem services" that impact human well-being. Further, the relevance of this research to the general public is seldom communicated in terms that can motivate action to protect valuable resources. To understand how changes in biological indicators affect human well-being, we used the STEPS (Stressor-Ecological Production function-final ecosystem Services) Framework to quantitatively and qualitatively link CL exceedances to ecosystem service impacts. We specified the cause-and-effect ecological processes linking changes in biological indicators to final ecosystem services. The Final Ecosystem Goods and Services Classification System (FEGS-CS) was used within the STEPS Framework to classify the ecosystem component and the beneficiary class that uses or values the component. We analyzed two acid-sensitive tree species, balsam fir (Abies balsamea) and white ash (Fraxinus americana), that are common in northeastern USA. These well-known species provide habitat for animals and popular forest products that are relatable to a broad audience. We identified 160 chains with 10 classes of human beneficiaries for balsam fir and white ash combined, concluding that there are resources at risk that the public may value. Two stories resulting from these explorations into the cascading effects of acid rain on terrestrial resources are ideal for effective science communication: the relationship between (1) balsam fir as a popular Christmas tree and habitat for the snowshoe hare, a favorite of wildlife viewers, and (2) white ash because it is used for half of all baseball bats, fine wood products, and musical instruments. Thus, rather than focusing on biological indicators that may only be understood or appreciated by specific stakeholders or experts, this approach extends the analysis to include impacts on FEGS and humans. It also lays the foundation for developing stakeholder-specific narratives, quantitative measures of endpoints, and for conducting demand-based valuations of affected ecosystem services.