Field data on the sulphur and cation budget of growing Norway spruce canopies (Picea abies [L.] Karst.) are summarized. They are used to test a spruce decline model capable of quantifying effects of chronic SO2 pollution on spruce forests. At ambient SO2 concentrations, acute SO2 damage is rare, but exposure to polluted air produces reversible thinning of the canopy structure with a half-time of a few years. Canopy thinning in the spruce decline model is highest (i) at elevated SO2 pollution, (ii) in the mountains, (iii) at unfertilized sites with poor K+, Mg2+ or Zn2+ supply, (iv) at low spruce litter decomposition rates, and (v) acidic, shallow soils at high annual precipitation rates in the field and vice versa. Model application using field data from Würzburg (moderate SO2 pollution, alkaline soils, no spruce decline) and from the Erzgebirge (extreme SO2 pollution, acidic soils in the mountains, massive spruce decline) predicts canopy thinning by 2–11% in Würzburg and by 45–70% in the Erzgebirge. The model also predicts different SO2-tolerance limits for Norway spruce depending on the site elevation and on the nutritional status of the needles. If needle loss of more than 25% (damage class 2) is taken to indicate ‘real damage’ exceeding natural variances, then for optimum soil conditions SO2 tolerance limits range from (27.3 ± 7.4) μg m−3 to (62.6 ± 16.5) μg m−3. For shallow and acidic soils, SO2 tolerance limits range from (22.0 ± 5.5) μg m−3 to (37.4 ± 7.5) μ m−3. These tolerance limits, which are calculated on an ecophysiological data basis for Norway spruce are close to epidemiological SO2-toIerance limits as recommended by the IUFRO, UN-ECE and WHO. The observed statistical regression slope of the plot (damaged spruce trees vs. SO2-pollution) in west Germany is confirmed by modelling (6% error). Model application to other forest trees allows deduction of the observed sequence of SO2-sensitivity: Abies > Picea > Pinus > Fagus > Quercus. Thus, acute phytotoxicity of SO2 seems not to be involved in ‘forest decline’. Chronic SO2-pollution induces massive canopy thinning of Abies alba and Picea abies only at unfavourable sites, where natural stress factors and secondary effects of SO2pollution act together to produce tree decline.