At the beginning of the project, research focused on testing three computer models used to guide Congress in deliberations on the Clean Air Act reauthorization in the late 1980s, with an emphasis on effects of sulfur on surface waters. Since then, research has shown where the models were right and wrong. And scientists have broadened their research scope to include many aspects of biological and geochemical function in forested watersheds.
Today, they are studying poorly understood processes regarding carbon sequestration and dissolved carbon release to surface waters; the effects of unanticipated events such as ice storms; how recovery from higher levels of sulfur deposition happens in ecosystems and why recovery is not as advanced as predicted; the role of phosphorus in acidification; and insights on forest nutrient cycling critical to understand forest sustainability in an era of increasing population and expanding bioenergy markets.
The critical questions that are the focus of research today were not recognized at the beginning of the experiment. The last two decades have been a period of warming climate, changes in storm patterns and decreases in sulfur deposition, which are all examples of changes in the environment that can only be fully understood by including long-term ecological observatories like Bear Brook in the mix of science.
“It has taken a different path than we thought,” says Norton, now professor emeritus, who retains his interest in Bear Brook and still collaborates on research while Fernandez oversees the project. “None of these processes would have been unraveled by a three-year study.”