Twenty years of biological monitoring of element concentrations in permanent forest and grassland plots in Baden-Württemberg (SW Germany)
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Background, aim and scope
Environmental monitoring of pollutants in international or local programmes has enabled authorities to evaluate the success of political measures over time. Strict environmental legislation and the introduction of cleaner technologies have already led to significant improvements of the air and water quality in many countries. Still, the discharge and deposition of anthropogenic long-range transported pollutants often remain above the critical thresholds and long-term targets defined for terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems even in EU countries. In order to determine the spatial and temporal variation of pollutant and nutrient loads in different environmental media a unique ecological response cadastre (Ökologisches Wirkungskataster, ÖKWI) was set up in the Land of Baden-Württemberg (SW Germany) in the mid 1980s. As a part of the program a state-wide bioindicator network was established in 64 forest and 18 permanent grassland ecosystems, in which selected chemical elements were measured over time. Here, we report on the results of these analyses and discuss the general spatio-temporal trends in pollution loads.
Materials and methods
Sixty-four forest and 18 permanent grassland plots were established in state-owned forest and nature conservation areas of SW Germany representing different landscapes and geologies of the State of Baden-Württemberg. Apart from performing vegetation relevées in marked plots of either the grassland or forest sites, plant samples were collected in intervals of 2 to 3 years following a standardised protocol. To be able to compare the different monitoring sites, four common species were chosen as indicator species in the grasslands. Later on, also bulk grassland samples were taken regardless of the species. In the forests, foliage of the dominant tree species (Fagus sylvatica, Abiea alba or Fraxinus excelsior) was sampled in the crown of marked trees and from the same species in the herb layer. The elements analysed in the plant material were the essential plant nutrients C, N, S, P, Ca, K and Mg and the metals Mn, Cd, Pb, Al, Cu, Ni and Hg. Data were analysed using descriptive and multivariate statistics and maps were produced to identify regional differences in pollutant deposition.
Results and discussion
Out of the elements analysed, lead and sulphur concentrations showed the most pronounced downward trends over time in tree foliage and grassland samples with the largest decreases observed in the early 1990s. Both the reduced lead and sulphur levels in the biomonitors reflect the successful implementation of clean air policies, i.e. the introduction of unleaded gasoline, the availability of desulphurisation technologies and the economic transition of Eastern European heavy industries. However, the decrease in sulphur concentrations was lower in beech foliage from SW Germany as compared to beech leaves from six German national parks suggesting regional differences in sulphur deposition and trends thereof. At the same time, sulphur concentrations declined more strongly in the grassland samples indicating that much of the deposited sulphur remains in the forest ecosystems while in the grassland ecosystems it is gradually removed by the frequent cutting and grazing. During the time series, the decrease in sulphur deposition coincided with a marked increase in rain pH. At the same time, the increasing nitrogen concentrations observed over time in beech leaves suggest that emissions of oxidised and reduced nitrogen are still adding to the large-scale eutrophication of SW German forests. However, N concentrations in both the tree foliage and in the bulk grassland samples were unrelated to the modelled N deposition. When also considering macronutrient concentrations and N:P and N:K ratios, the results point to serious nutrient imbalances in many beech forests, which may reduce plant vitality and tree growth in the long run.
Biological monitoring using plants is an effective tool to address changes in the environmental quality over time and space. The success of European clean air policies and the introduction of emission reduction technologies could be mirrored by the declining sulphur and lead concentrations in the present and in other monitoring programmes. However, the changed deposition patterns, i.e. lower deposition of acids and higher deposition of reactive nitrogen, are coupled to changes in the soil chemistry and will continue to affect plant nutrition and the uptake of elements in the future.
Recommendations and perspectives
Although it could be shown that deposition of sulphur and lead has declined markedly in the past 20 years, biomonitoring is still necessary to reveal changes in element concentrations and nutrient imbalances. The use of plants as bioindicators should be continued as an integral part of environmental monitoring programmes. Besides the chemical analyses, also biometric parameters, e.g. thousand needle or leaf weights, biomass production in grassland plots and stem increments in forest plots, should be included to monitor the long-term responses of European ecosystems to environmental and climatic changes.
KeywordsBiomonitoring Fagus sylvatica Heavy metals Nitrogen saturation Nutrient imbalances N:K ratio N:P ratio Sulphur deposition
The authors are grateful for the funding of the project (contract grant Nr. 45000/7720) by the LUBW (State Institute for Environment, Measurements and Nature Conservation Baden-Württemberg, Karlsruhe). Mrs. Sigrid Strich from the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (Bonn) and Dr. Wolfgang Lux from the Institute for Forest Ecology and Forest Inventory (Eberswalde) are thanked for providing data on foliar nutrients from the long-term Hessian forest monitoring programme.
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