Influence of bedrock geology and tree species composition on stream nitrate concentrations in mid-Appalachian forested watersheds

Karl W.J. Williard, David R. Dewalle, Pamela J. Edwards

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


Although the large variations in nitrate export from forested watersheds have been attributed to a variety of natural and disturbance-related factors, baseflow nitrate concentrations in 49 mid-Appalachian forested watersheds were most strongly related to differences in bedrock geology. Within the mid-Appalachian region of Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia, watersheds dominated by Pottsville and Allegheny sandstone (PVA), Catskill, Chemung, and Pocono shale and sandstone (CCP), and Mauch Chunk shale and Greenbrier limestone (MCG), respectively, exhibited significantly different low, intermediate, and high mean stream nitrate concentrations. Soil pH, soil percent N concentration (%N), soil C:N mass ratio, soil exchangeable Ca, watershed slope, and the occurrence of white ash (Fraxinus americana L.), sugar maple (Acer saccharum Marsh.), and eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis L.) were related significantly to bedrock geology type as well as stream nitrate levels. Other factors such as past land disturbances (fire and agriculture) and stand age (old-growth) typically were associated with only one bedrock geology type. However, within a bedrock geology type, past agriculture and the presence of old-growth forest may be important in explaining stream nitrate concentrations on an individual watershed basis. The basal area of black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia L.), a species that enhances soil nitrogen levels via nitrogen fixation, showed a moderate positive correlation with stream nitrate concentrations. Bedrock geology explained the most variation in winter (49%) and summer (32%) stream nitrate concentrations. Bedrock geology may have been a better predictor of stream nitrate concentrations than soil chemistry, because the geologic variation was better assessed at the regional scale of this study compared to soil chemistry, which varies at the micro-scale due to topographic, vegetation, microbial, and climatic influences. Results of this study suggest that bedrock geology is an important factor to consider when assessing forest nitrogen dynamics at a broad landscape scale.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)55-76
Number of pages22
JournalWater, Air, and Soil Pollution
Issue number1-4
StatePublished - Jan 2005

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecological Modeling
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Pollution


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