Human activities have caused marked changes in atmospheric chemistry over large regions of Europe and North America. Although considerable attention has been paid to the effects of changes in the deposition of acid anions (such as sulphate and nitrate) on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems1-7, little is known about whether the concentrations of basic components of the atmosphere have changed over time8,9 and what the biogeochemical consequences of such potential changes might be. In particular, there has been some controversy8-12 as to whether declines in base-cation deposition have countered effects of recent reductions in SO2emission. Here we report evidence for steep declines in the atmospheric concentrations of base cations (sum of non-sea-salt Ca2+, Mg2+, K+ and Na+) over the past 10 to 26 years from high-quality precipitation chemistry records in Europe and North America. To varying but generally significant degrees, these base-cation trends have offset recent reductions in sulphate deposition in the regions examined. The observed trends seem to be ecologically important on decadal timescales, and support earlier contentions8-10 that declines in the deposition of base cations may have contributed to increased sensitivity of poorly buffered ecosystems.
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