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  • Lauren Kim

Acid Rain, Go Away, Come Again Another Day


"Rain" by Robrrt is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0


Introduction

You poke your hand outside of your window on a rainy day. Does the rain slightly sting as it hits your skin? Be careful—this rain is acidic.


Actually, it’s not as bad as it sounds! In fact, ALL rain is slightly acidic due to natural reactions between water and carbon dioxide that form carbonic acid in our atmosphere. Natural rainwater falls below the neutral pH level of 7 at around 5.6, and does not pose a severe threat to the environment. There is, however, something called acid rain, ranging from pH levels of 4.2-4.4, that is a more severe environmental problem [1]. This article will discuss the causes and effects of acid rain as well as some practical solutions we can participate in to reduce this harmful downpour.


Causes of Acid Rain

You’ll notice that the following human activities promoting rain acidification [1] are very common and cause many other environmental problems as well. This shows the interconnectedness of our world and emphasizes why we should be extra careful to preserve nature.

  • Burning Fossil Fuels (to generate electricity): Our society primarily gets electricity from facilities called power plants. These large stations usually burn fossil fuels in order to produce electricity, but this combustion releases sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere which then chemically react with other atmospheric gases to form sulfuric acid and nitric acid, respectively [2]. Acid rain occurs when there are too many gaseous acids present in our atmosphere and so rainwater would essentially bring those acids down to Earth’s surface.


"Avedøre power plant" by Martini DK is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


  • Vehicles That Run On Gasoline: Just like power plants, burning fossil fuels such as gasoline to fuel cars, trucks, and buses releases nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide into the air. When reacting directly with sunlight, these air pollutants will form smog. It is important to know that while smog coming from vehicles is not always visible, it is one of the greatest dangers to our environment. Not only does it cause acid rain, but smog from vehicles leads to other environmental disasters such as ocean acidification, vegetation loss, climate change, ozone loss, etc.


Effects of Acid Rain On Our Environment

Unfortunately, the damage that acid rain causes towards the environment [3] is relevant to all parts of our ecosystem:

  • Fish Kills: The ecological effects of acid rain are most direct in streams, lakes, and marshes that shelter fish and other aquatic wildlife. When acid rain falls into streams or lakes, it lowers the water’s pH, which can make these ecosystems too acidic for fish to survive in. While some tough aquatic organisms out there may be tolerant to changes in their surroundings, acid rain is definitely a threat to the more sensitive species.


  • Removing Nutrients from Soil: Dead/dying trees are a common sight in areas affected by acid rain. This is because nutrients in soil usually remain intact in soil particles but they will dissolve when in contact with acid rain. The nutrient-rich rainwater then flows away from the soil, depleting the ecosystem’s minerals and nutrients that trees need to grow. At high elevations, acidic fog and clouds might strip nutrients from trees’ foliage, leaving them with brown or dead leaves. The trees are then less able to absorb sunlight, which makes them weak and less able to withstand freezing temperatures up in higher elevations.


Cartoon leaf holding an umbrella over baby plant (cotyledons, iStockphoto)


  • Episodic Acidification: Episodic acidification is caused by melting snow and heavy rain downpours. Lakes that are usually not acidic temporarily experience effects of acid rain when the melting snow or downpour brings greater amounts of acidic deposition and the soil can’t buffer it. This can bring short-term stress to ecosystems that will endanger some wildlife species.


Solutions to PREVENT Acid Rain

Luckily for us, the Clean Air Act of 1990 recognized that sulfuric/nitric acid emissions were detrimental and unhealthy for the environment and since it was passed, America’s sulfur dioxide emissions have been reduced by 88% and for nitrogen oxides, 50%! Then what are other safety measures all people can keep to prevent acid rain?

  • Apply Stricter Environmental Laws and Regulations: People are aware of smog and air pollution, but many people do not know that other air pollutants float around in our atmosphere. It is important to keep people from conducting experiments of burning fossil fuels without government permission or national supervision. This will harm our environment without having the researchers and scientists knowing, which will slowly kill our Earth. Applying stricter laws against wrongdoers and industries that use high masses of harmful pollutants are essential in keeping our Earth clean and safe.


  • Bike or Walk to Closer Places: Personal cars are a popular means of transportation. However, walking or biking to closer destinations will help reduce air pollution, nitrogen pollution, and acid rain altogether.



Thank you for reading today, and I hope you found this article interesting! Just remember, our Earth is worth saving and we can all work together to preserve our environment!

Note: Bracketed numbers next to certain texts (e.g. [1], [2], etc.) indicate that the aforementioned information in the article is derived from the corresponding source in the References below.



References

[1] Environmental Protection Agency. What is Acid Rain? (2020, May 12). https://www.epa.gov/acidrain/what-acid-rain.

[2] Environmental Protection Agency. What Causes Acid Rain? EPA. https://www3.epa.gov/acidrain/education/site_students/whatcauses.html.

[3] Environmental Protection Agency. (2020, May 4). Effects of Acid Rain. EPA. https://www.epa.gov/acidrain/effects-acid-rain.


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