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FOCUS: A pilot study for national-scale critical loads development in the United States

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Blett, Tamara F.; Lynch, Jason A.; Pardo, Linda H.; Huber, Cindy ; Haeuber, Richard ; Pouyat, Richard

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Environmental Science & Policy


The development and use of critical loads of air pollutant deposition in the U.S. is gaining momentum, and recent research efforts in the U.S. have produced valuable data for calculating critical loads. Critical loads are used to quantify the levels of air pollutants that are expected to impact forest health, soil fertility, aquatic biota condition, and other ecosystem responses. In addition, model refinements for improving critical loads estimates, and maps for illustrating critical loads for acidification and nitrogen saturation and eutrophication resulting from excess nutrient nitrogen, have been developed at various scales. However, prior to the effort described here, no cohesive process existed to provide a national-scale critical loads database and maps as a unified product representing all U.S. ecosystems. The FOCUS (Focal Center Utility Study) Project was initiated to coordinate the development and implementation of a clear, consistent, repeatable process for calculating and mapping critical loads within the U.S. In the FOCUS Phase I Pilot Study, empirical and calculated critical loads data for the U.S. were synthesized from dozens of regional and national-scale monitoring networks, research projects and publically available databases following an approach similar to that used in Europe. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), through its International Cooperative Programme on Modelling and Mapping of Critical Levels & Loads and Air Pollution Effects, Risks and Trends (ICP-M&M) collects, analyzes and maps critical loads data. Countries participating in the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP) use a Critical Loads "Focal Center" in each country to serve as the point of contact for submitting regional and national-scale critical loads data to the ICP-M&M. One of the purposes of this study was to develop a foundation for interacting with other Focal Centers by assembling critical loads data, creating a database, establishing modeling protocols, and developing infrastructure within the U.S to report and update critical loads on a national scale. Because the U.S. does not currently have an officially designated Focal Center, critical loads data were provided as an informal, unofficial submission to the Coordination Center for Effects (CCE) of the ICPM& M in March 2011, in the interest of international cooperation and exchange of information on the effects of atmospheric deposition of pollutants on ecosystems. We envision that these data will enable U.S. scientists, land managers, and environmental policymakers to enter into a productive and meaningful dialogue within the US, and also with the international scientific community on methods for estimating, calculating, mapping, interpreting, and refining critical loads for the effects of acidification and excess nutrient nitrogen on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. This paper describes the process used to develop national-scale critical loads in the U.S., summarizes the FOCUS Phase I approach and database development effort, and presents some initial national-scale critical loads mapping products.


Air quality; Acidification; Nitrogen saturation; Eutrophication; Ecological thresholds


Blett, Tamara F.; Lynch, Jason A.; Pardo, Linda H.; Huber, Cindy; Haeuber, Richard; Pouyat, Richard. 2014. FOCUS: A pilot study for national-scale critical loads development in the United States. Environmental Science & Policy. 38: 225-236.

Last updated on: September 9, 2019