Acid Rain: Still with Us

Published on May 23rd, 2016

With the start of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s, we began spewing billions of tons of smoke and noxious fumes into Earth’s biosphere annually, but few people understood the ramifications on their lives.

Ironically, when settlers landed in North America, the water, air and land offered pristine purity, clarity and fertility. Native Americans lived in harmony with Nature. Their only pollution consisted of campfires and occasional fires that they set to manage habitat, which, because of their small numbers, amounted to less impact than wildfires started by lightning.

But today, Americans burn not only wood, but oil, coal and natural gas (the fossil fuels) at accelerating rates. We burn about 20 million barrels of oil daily. We burn coal laden with the toxic heavy metal mercury. We spew thousands of chemicals into the air through our industrial processes and our continuous movement of ourselves and our goods by boats, ships, planes, trains, trucks and other vehicles.

In the 1970s, new words hit the newspapers: “air and water pollution,” “environmental degradation” and one not quite understood at the time: “acid rain.”

Acid rain consists of water droplets that contain chemicals such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfuric acid and nitric acid. The sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are initially emitted by cars and industrial processes (especially coal-fired power plants). These chemicals then undergo reactions in the air and are converted into sulfuric and nitric acid, which falls to the ground as acid rain or snow.

Millions of industrial smokestacks cough their guts into the sky 24/7 around the world. America led the acid rain assault in the 20th century, but China and India have overtaken this country in the 21st century.

As a baseline, normal rainwater falls in the pH range of 5.3 to 6.0. Rain is slightly acidic, as naturally occurring nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides are added as it passes through the atmosphere. Neutral water has a pH of 7.0, so acid deposition results in anything below that scale. Of great importance, the pH scale is logarithmic, and each whole number on the scale represents a 10-fold change in acidity. So, 6.0 is 10 times more acidic than 7.0, 5.0 is 100 times more acidic than 7.0, and 4.0 is 1,000 times more acidic than 7.0.

Acid Rain’s Impacts

America, the first industrialized “big” civilization, set the benchmark for burning fossil fuels. That created multiple chemicals and carbon footprint impacts in the skies.

Americans burn oil, but in addition, our country burns 1.05 billion tons of coal annually, mostly at electrical generation stations, that saturates the atmosphere with sulfur, mercury, arsenic and a variety of other poisonous byproducts. Along with carbon particulate, all that smoke congregates in the clouds to fall as rain, snow or fog.

While studying the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, scientists discovered multiple impacts of acid deposition on both natural and human-made environments. Acid rain degrades rivers, lakes and streams across America, especially in the Northeast and in a large area called the Canadian Shield, where underlying rocks and soils are “poorly buffered,” that is, unable to neutralize the acid. Acid rain damages maple trees to the point of diminishing their sap output, or even killing the trees. Tests showed that the Appalachian Mountain forests east of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, suffered due to acid rain from steel mills.

Acid rain causes clay soils to release aluminum and magnesium, which further lowers the pH in the ground. When the pH drops below 4.8 in lakes, its plants and marine life risk death. Scientists report that 50,000 lakes in the United States have pH levels below 4.8. In the beautiful region of upstate New York called the Adirondacks, the Adirondack Council reports that:

“More than 500 lakes and ponds (out of 2,800) in the Adirondack Park are already too acidic to support the plants and aquatic wildlife that once existed in them. Each spring, an entire winter’s acidic snowpack melt into the Park’s waters, jolting them with a huge jump in acidity known as ‘acid shock.’ It could not happen at a worse time. Many of the Park's plants, animals and insects are at their most vulnerable at the beginning of the growing season.”

The common loon – famous for its haunting cry – is an iconic bird
of the North Country. It has become less common as a result of acid rain.

Which brings you to the sobering understanding that increasing human population within the United States accelerates coal combustion and thus higher amounts of acid rain.

Where does that water end up? It lands in your tap water.

According to a recent report by the Environmental Protection Agency, 119 regulated chemicals – a total of 260 contaminants – were discovered in a two-and-a-half-year analysis of more than 22 million tap water quality tests. The Federal Safe Drinking Water Act required the tests on 40,000 utilities that supply water to 231 million people.

More people means more cars, smokestacks and chimneys, and that means more acid rain. So, we might consider stabilizing U.S. population, sooner rather than later.

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