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Web Date: February 28, 2012

Acid Rain Levels May Control Lakes’ Dissolved Organic Matter

Lake Chemistry: Study links decreasing rain acidity to increasing levels of dissolved organic matter in lakes
Department: Science & Technology
News Channels: Environmental SCENE
Keywords: rain, dissolved organic matter, aquatic chemistry, lakes, fluorescence spectroscopy
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Lake Chemistry
As pollution controls have lowered rain acidity, dissolved organic matter has increased in lakes including this one in Maine.
Credit: Sarah Nelson
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Lake Chemistry
As pollution controls have lowered rain acidity, dissolved organic matter has increased in lakes including this one in Maine.
Credit: Sarah Nelson

For decades, the concentration of dissolved organic matter, which is critical to aquatic ecosystem’s good health, has been rising in U.S. and European lakes. The trend has perplexed environmental scientists. Now a new study of lakes in the northeastern U.S. suggests that a welcome decrease in acid rain has driven this rise in dissolved organic matter (Environ. Sci. Technol., DOI: 10.1021/es204321x).

In recent years, the idea that acid rain levels help control those of dissolved organic matter (DOM) has gained traction because organic matter dissolves more easily as rainwater’s acidity decreases. But researchers have found other confounding correlations with DOM levels. For example, rising carbon dioxide can lead to additional plant growth; the extra plant matter in turn could break down to produce DOM that enters lakes (Environ. Sci. Pollut. Res., DOI: 10.1007/s11356-009-0176-7).

“There are just so many factors involved it’s been difficult to isolate the driver,” says Mike SanClements, an ecosystem ecologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-leader of the new study.

SanClements, Gretchen Oelsner of the Environmental Protection Agency, and their colleagues realized that historical water samples collected by the EPA might offer some answers. They wanted to compare the relative abundances of two types of DOM over time: terrestrial organic matter, which comes from land plants and soils, and lake organic matter, which comes from aquatic microbes and algae. If changes in rain acidity caused the increase in overall DOM levels, then the researchers expected to find a shift toward the terrestrial type because rainwater would carry more land-based organic matter into lakes.

To test the hypothesis, the team used fluorescence spectroscopy to analyze water samples from nine Maine lakes dating from 1993 to 2009. Since each DOM type has unique fluorescence signals, the researchers could determine the types’ relative abundance. They found that as total organic matter levels increased over time, the terrestrial signal grew stronger, supporting the idea that less acid rain led to more DOM.

 
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