The effects of prolonged simulated acid rain on percentage cover of ground vegetation, and on growth and reproduction of two dominating dwarf shrubs (Emapetrum nigrum and Vaccinium vaitisidaea) were examined in a field experiment in the Finnish Subarctic, in an area with low ambient levels of sulphur and nitrogen deposition. Acid rain treatments included moderate (pH 3.8) and high (pH 2.9) concentrations of either H2SO4, or HNO3, or a mixture of them, and were compared with irrigated (pH 6) and dry control plots.
Long-term application of acid rain caused significant alteration in the cover and composition of ground vegetation. Effects of acid ram depended on the accompanying anion and on pH. Sub-plots under different canopy tree species differed in responses indicating that spatial heterogeneity is important in predicting the effect of acidifying pollution on this plant community.
In the bottom layer, acid rain caused significant reduction in cover of the cyanobacterial lichens Nephroma arcticum and Peltigera spp. Decrease in cover of fruticose lichens, mainly composed of Cladina spp., more likely resulted from additional watering.
In the field layer, acid rain containing moderate concentrations of NO−3 caused an increase in cover of graminoid species. There were only slight alterations in growth and cover of the two dominant evergreen dwarf shrubs, Enigrum and V. vitis-idaea, indicating that these species are tolerant to acid rain of as low as pH 3. Even some positive responses of dwarf shrubs were observed, depending on canopy tree. Application of acid rain of pH 3 to plots under pine trees caused an increase in cover of I, vitis-idaea and, when the nitric acid only was applied, a short-term increase in the number of new shoots of E. nigrum.
In contrast to vegetative growth, reproduction of the dwarf shrubs was more strongly affected by acid rain, but this also depended on local conditions and anion composition of acid rain. On ‘pine’ plots, rain of pH 3 reduced the number of berries and flower buds on terminal current shoot of E. nigrum, however, this was partially compensated by an increase in berry production at the ramet level. Simulated acid rain had mainly negative effects on berry production by V. vitis-idaea.