Long-term annual and seasonal patterns of acidic deposition and stream water quality in a great smoky mountains high-elevation watershed

Meijun Cai, John S. Schwartz, R. Bruce Robinson, Stephen E. Moore, Matt A. Kulp

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


The recovery potential of stream acidification from years of acidic deposition is dependent on biogeochemical processes and varies among different acid-sensitive regions. Studies that investigate long-term trends and seasonal variability of stream chemistry in the context of atmospheric deposition and watershed setting provide crucial assessments on governing biogeochemical processes. In this study, water chemistries were investigated in Noland Divide watershed (NDW), a high-elevation watershed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM) of the southern Appalachian region. Monitoring data from 1991 to 2007 for deposition and stream water chemistries were statistically analyzed for long-term trends and seasonal patterns by using Seasonal Kendall Tau tests. Precipitation declined over this study period, where throughfall (TF) declined significantly by 5.76 cm year-1. Precipitation patterns play a key role in the fate and transport of acid pollutants. On a monthly volume-weighted basis, pH of TF and wet deposition, and stream water did not significantly change over time remaining around 4.3, 4.7, and 5.8, respectively. Per NDW area, TF SO4 2- flux declined 356.16 eq year -1 and SO4 2- concentrations did not change significantly over time. Stream SO4 2- remained about 30 μeq L-1 exhibiting no long-term trends or seasonal patterns. SO4 2- retention was generally greater during drier months. TF monthly volume-weighted NH4 + and NO 3 - concentrations significantly increased by 0.80 μeq L-1 year-1 and 1.24 μeq L-1 year -1, respectively. TF NH4 + fluxes increased by 95.76 eq year-1. Most of NH4 + was retained in the watershed, and NO3 - retention was much lower than NH4 +. Stream monthly volume-weighted NO3 - concentrations and fluxes significantly declined by 0.56 μeq L-1 year-1 and 139.56 eq year-1, respectively. Overall, in NDW, inorganic nitrogen was exported before 1999 and retained since then, presumably from forest regrowth after Frazer fir die-off in the 1970s from balsam wooly adelgid infestation. Stream export of NO3 - was greater during winter than summer months. During the period from 1999 to 2007, stream base cations did not exhibit significant changes, apparently regulated by soil supply. Statistical models predicting stream pH, ANC, SO 4 2-, and NO3 - concentrations were largely correlated with stream discharge and number of dry days between precipitation events and SO4 2- deposition. Dependent on precipitation, governing biogeochemical processes in NDW appear to be SO 4 2- adsorption, nitrification, and NO3 - forest uptake. This study provided essential information to aid the GRSM management for developing predictive models of the future water quality and potential impacts from climate change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)547-562
Number of pages16
JournalWater, Air, and Soil Pollution
Issue number1-4
StatePublished - Jul 2011

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgements Research for this project was funded by the U.S. Department of Interior, National Park Service Cooperative Agreement Grant No. 1443-CA-5460-98-006 (Amendment 10) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through the University of Tennessee Natural Research Policy Center, USEPA Grant No. EM-83298901-1. We are thankful for the support of Dr. Nancy Finley, former Natural Resource Research Director at the GRSM. Because of the 16-year monitoring effort, the individuals who have helped in sample collection, laboratory analysis, and data management over the years are too numerous to list. In recent years, we are thankful for the support of Keil Neff, Tom Zimmerman, Lee Mauney, Karen Jackson, and Tom Barnett.


  • Acidic deposition
  • Climate change
  • Seasonal variation
  • Southern Appalachian
  • Stream acidification, temporal trends
  • Water quality


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