Modelling impacts of acid deposition and groundwater level on habitat quality and plant species diversity

Kros, J.; Mol, J.P.; Wamelink, G.W.W.; Reinds, G.J.; van Hinsberg, A.; de Vries, W.


We quantified the effects of the site factors pH and nitrate (NO3) concentration in soil solution and groundwater level on the vegetation of terrestrial ecosystems for the Netherlands in response to changes in atmospheric nitrogen (N) and sulphur (S) deposition and groundwater level over the period 1990–2030. The assessment was made with the SMART2 model, a simple one-layer model including geochemical buffer processes, element cycling by litterfall, mineralisation and uptake, nitrogen transformation processes and element input through deposition, weathering and upward seepage.
To assess the effects of changes in abiotic site factors on the vegetation, we developed a simple plant diversity indicator for grassland, heathland and forest, based on the occurrence of target plant species and competing species. Species occurrence was calculated from the preferred ranges of each species for the NO3 concentration and pH in soil solution and mean spring groundwater level. Changes in the plant diversity indicator were assessed from effects of changes in the occurrence of target and competing plant species in response to changes in mean spring groundwater level and in pH and NO3 concentration, as calculated with SMART2. Calculations were made for combinations of five vegetation structure types (three forest types, semi-natural grassland and heathland) and seven soil types (three sandy soils, two clay soils, peat and loess soils) using a 250 × 250 m grid. We used data for atmospheric deposition and groundwater level in the past to assess trends between 1990 and 2010 and evaluated two future scenarios for the period 2010–2030: a Business as Usual and an Improved Environment scenario.
Comparison of model predictions on pH and NO3 with measured soil solution concentrations for forest showed a reasonable to good agreement for pH but rather poor for NO3. The largest impacts were found for the combination of the two Improved Environment scenarios.
Reductions in N and S deposition and an increase in groundwater level between 1990 and 2030 hardly caused changes in soil pH and only relatively small reductions in NO3 concentration (11–13%). Nevertheless, those changes caused a significant increase in plant diversity indicator.