Threshold effects of air pollution and climate change on understory plant communities at forested sites in the eastern United States

T.C. McDonnell*, G.J. Reinds, G.W.W. Wamelink, P.W. Goedhart, M. Posch, T.J. Sullivan, C.M. Clark

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Forest understory plant communities in the eastern United States are often diverse and are potentially sensitive to changes in climate and atmospheric inputs of nitrogen caused by air pollution. In recent years, empirical and processed-based mathematical models have been developed to investigate such changes in plant communities. In the study reported here, a robust set of understory vegetation response functions (expressed as version 2 of the Probability of Occurrence of Plant Species model for the United States [US-PROPS v2]) was developed based on observations of forest understory and grassland plant species presence/absence and associated abiotic characteristics derived from spatial datasets. Improvements to the US-PROPS model, relative to version 1, were mostly focused on inclusion of additional input data, development of custom species-level input datasets, and implementation of methods to address uncertainty. We investigated the application of US-PROPS v2 to evaluate the potential impacts of atmospheric nitrogen (N) and sulfur (S) deposition, and climate change on forest ecosystems at three forested sites located in New Hampshire, Virginia, and Tennessee in the eastern United States. Species-level N and S critical loads (CLs) were determined under ambient deposition at all three modeled sites. The lowest species-level CLs of N deposition at each site were between 2 and 11 kg N/ha/yr. Similarly, the lowest CLs of S deposition, based on the predicted soil pH response, were less than 2 kg S/ha/yr among the three sites. Critical load exceedance was found at all three model sites. The New Hampshire site included the largest percentage of species in exceedance. Simulated warming air temperature typically resulted in lower maximum occurrence probability, which contributed to lower CLs of N and S deposition. The US-PROPS v2 model, together with the PROPS-CLF model to derive CL functions, can be used to develop site-specific CLs for understory plants within broad regions of the United States. This study demonstrates that species-level CLs of N and S deposition are spatially variable according to the climate, light availability, and soil characteristics at a given location. Although the species niche models generally performed well in predicting occurrence probability, there remains uncertainty with respect to the accuracy of reported CLs. As such, the specific CLs reported here should be considered as preliminary estimates. Critical loads of atmospheric nitrogen and sulfur deposition were determined for maintaining understory vegetation diversity. Critical load exceedance was found at all model application sites.

Original languageEnglish
Article number114351
JournalEnvironmental Pollution
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2020


  • Biodiversity
  • Climate change
  • Critical load
  • Forest understory
  • Nitrogen


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