In the United Kingdom, as in other regions of Europe and North America, recent decreases in surface water sulphate concentrations, due to reduced sulphur emissions, have coincided with marked increases in dissolved organic carbon (DOC) concentrations. Since many of the compounds comprising DOC are acidic, the resulting increases in organic acidity may have the potential to offset the benefits of a decrease in mineral (sulphate) acidity. To test this, we used a triprotic model of organic acid dissociation to estimate the proportional organic acid buffering of reduced mineral acidity as measured in the 22 lakes and streams monitored by the UK Acid Waters Monitoring Network. For an average non-marine sulphate decrease of 30 μeq l− 1 over 15 years from 1988–2003, we estimate that around 28% was counterbalanced by rising strong organic acids, 20% by rising alkalinity (partly attributable to an increase in weak organic acids), 11% by falling inorganic aluminium and 41% by falling non-marine base cations. The situation is complicated by a concurrent decrease in marine ion concentrations, and the impact this may have had on both DOC and acidity, but results clearly demonstrate that organic acid increases have substantially limited the amount of recovery from acidification (in terms of rising alkalinity and falling aluminium) that have resulted from reducing sulphur emissions. The consistency and magnitude of sulphate and organic acid changes are consistent with a causal link between the two, possibly due to the effects of changing acidity, ionic strength and aluminium concentrations on organic matter solubility. If this is the case, then organic acids can be considered effective but partial buffers to acidity change in organic soils, and this mechanism needs to be considered in assessing and modelling recovery from acidification, and in defining realistic reference conditions. However, large spatial variations in the relative magnitude of organic acid and sulphate changes, notably for low-deposition sites in northwestern areas where organic acid increases apparently exceed non-marine sulphate decreases, suggest that additional factors, such as changes in sea-salt deposition and climatic factors, may be required to explain the full magnitude of DOC increases in UK surface waters.\u
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