ORONO, Maine — Researchers at the University of Maine and Virginia Tech are collaborating to study the impact of pollution from excess nitrogen on the environment in two sites in Maine and West Virginia.
UMaine professors Kevin Simon, Ivan Fernandez and Stephen Norton recently received $522,857 from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology to study the Bear Brook Watershed in Maine. Virginia Tech professor Maury Valett and Mary Beth Adams of the U.S. Forest Service received a $275,573 grant to work in Fernow Experimental Forest in West Virginia.
The Bear Brook part of the project examines the interaction among multiple elements such as nitrogen, phosphorus, carbon and metals, and the process of ecosystem acidification. The research studies the changes in chemicals and water as they travel from the atmosphere through the ecosystem, including the soil and streams of a watershed.
Nitrogen occurs naturally in the environment and is essential for plant growth, but too much nitrogen can have a negative effect on the environment.
“Nitrogen in general is a huge problem,” Simon, a UMaine assistant professor of stream ecology, said in a release. “Human activity has more than doubled the amount of nitrogen on the landscape, creating a pollution problem and changing the balance among multiple nutrients that limit biological activity in ecosystems.”
The Bear Brook site, which is on the eastern side of Lead Mountain near Beddington, is unique because half of the site remains natural, while the other half is treated periodically with ammonium sulfate so scientists can study the impact of extra nitrogen and sulfate.
Combining the Maine and West Virginia studies gives researchers the ability to test a wider range of nitrogen pollution.
“West Virginia gets a much higher loading of nitrogen deposition than Maine, so the comparison of the results from these two watersheds provides valuable insights into ecosystem response to air pollutants,” Simon said.
The project, which is expected to last three years, will include an opportunity for Old Town High School students to collaborate on the research. There also will be workshops for high school, undergraduate and graduate students to develop an educational computer simulation model of the impacts of nitrogen deposition. The results of the studies will be posted on a Web site.
When this portion of the study is complete, the researchers hope to find more funding to turn the simulation model into a computer modeling program that can be used to predict the environmental impacts from nitrogen pollution.