Introduction to Acid Rain
Acid Rain, a form of air pollution in which airborne acids produced by electric utility plants and other sources fall to Earth in distant regions. The corrosive nature of acid rain causes widespread damage to the environment. The problem begins with the production of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, natural gas, and oil, and from certain kinds of manufacturing. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides react with water and other chemicals in the air to form sulfuric acid, nitric acid, and other pollutants. These acid pollutants reach high into the atmosphere, travel with the wind for hundreds of miles, and eventually return to the ground by way of rain, snow, or fog, and as invisible “dry” forms.
Damage from acid rain
has been widespread in eastern North America and throughout Europe, and in
Japan, China, and Southeast Asia. Acid rain leaches nutrients from soils, slows
the growth of trees, and makes lakes uninhabitable for fish and other wildlife.
In cities, acid pollutants corrode almost everything they touch, accelerating
natural wear and tear on structures such as buildings and statues. Acids
combine with other chemicals to form urban smog, which attacks the lungs, causing
illness and premature deaths.
Formation of Acid Rain
The process that leads to acid rain begins with the burning of fossil fuels. Burning, or combustion, is a chemical reaction in which oxygen from the air combines with carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, and other elements in the substance being burned. The new compounds formed are gases called oxides.
When sulfur and nitrogen are present in the fuel, their reaction with oxygen yields sulfur dioxide and various nitrogen oxide compounds. In the United States, 70 per cent of sulfur dioxide pollution comes from power plants, especially those that burn coal. In Canada, industrial activities, including oil refining and metal smelting, account for 61 per cent of sulfur dioxide pollution. Nitrogen oxides enter the atmosphere from many sources, with motor vehicles emitting the largest share—43 per cent in the United States and 60 per cent in Canada.
Once in the atmosphere, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides undergo complex reactions with water vapour and other chemicals to yield sulfuric acid, nitric acid, and other pollutants called nitrates and sulfates. The acid compounds are carried by air currents and the wind, sometimes over long distances. When clouds or fog form in acid-laden air, they too are acidic, and so is the rain or snow that falls from them.
Acid pollutants also occur
as dry particles and as gases, which may reach the ground without the help of
water. When these “dry” acids are washed from ground surfaces by rain, they add
to the acids in the rain itself to produce a still more corrosive solution. The
combination of acid rain and dry acids is known as acid deposition.
Major Air Pollutants
Sources of major air pollutants include individual actions, such as driving a car, and industrial activities, such as manufacturing products or generating electricity. Note: 1 cubic meter (1m3) is equal to 35.3 cu ft; 1 milligram (1 mg) is equal to 0.00004 oz; 1 microgram (1µg) is equal to 0.00000004 oz.
Major Sources of Pollutants
Following are the major sources
|Carbon monoxide (CO)||
Motor-vehicle exhaust; some
Health standard: 10 mg/m3
(9 ppm) over 8 hr;
40 mg/m3 over 1 hr (35 ppm)
|Sulfur dioxide (SO2)||
Heat and power generation
facilities that use oil or coal containing sulfur; sulfuric acid plants
Health standard: 80 µg/m3
(0.03 ppm) over a year; 365 µg/m3 over 24 hr (0.14 ppm)
Motor-vehicle exhaust; industrial
processes; refuse incineration; heat and power generation; reaction of
pollution gases in the atmosphere
Health standard: 50 µg/m3
over a year;
150 µg/m3 over 24 hr; composed of carbon, nitrates, sulfates, and
many metals including lead, copper, iron, and zinc
Motor-vehicle exhaust; lead
smelters; battery plants
Health standard: 1.5 µg/m3
over 3 months
|Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)||
Motor-vehicle exhaust; heat and
power generation; nitric acid; explosives; fertilizer plants
Health standard: 100 µg/m3
(0.05 ppm) over a year; reacts with hydrocarbons and sunlight to form
|Ozone (O3)||Formed in the atmosphere by reaction of nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, and sunlight||Health standard: 235 µg/m3 (0.12 ppm) over 1 hr|
(Source: Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009. © 1993-2009).
Effects of Acid Rain
The acids in acid rain
react chemically with any object they contact. Acids are corrosive chemicals
that react with other chemicals by giving up hydrogen atoms. The acidity of a
substance comes from the abundance of free hydrogen atoms when the substance is
dissolved in water. Acidity is measured using a pH scale with units from 0 to
14. Acidic substances have pH numbers from 1 to 6—the lower the pH number, the
stronger, or more corrosive, the substance. Some nonacidic substances, called
bases or alkalis, are like acids in reverse—they readily accept the hydrogen
atoms that the acids offer. Bases have pH numbers from 8 to 14, with the higher
values indicating increased alkalinity. Pure water has a neutral pH of 7—it is
not acidic or basic. Rain, snow, or fog with a pH below 5.6 is considered acid
When bases mix with acids,
the bases lessen the strength of an acid (see Acids and Bases). This buffering
action regularly occurs in nature. Rain, snow, and fog formed in regions free
of acid pollutants are slightly acidic, having a pH near 5.6. Alkaline
chemicals in the environment, found in rocks, soils, lakes, and streams,
regularly neutralize this precipitation. But when precipitation is highly
acidic, with a pH below 5.6, naturally occurring acid buffers become depleted
over time, and nature’s ability to neutralize the acids is impaired. Acid rain
has been linked to widespread environmental damage, including soil and plant
degradation, depleted life in lakes and streams, and erosion of human-made
Effect on Soil
In soil, acid rain dissolves and washes away nutrients needed by plants. It can also dissolve toxic substances, such as aluminium and mercury, which are naturally present in some soils, freeing these toxins to pollute water or to poison plants that absorb them. Some soils are quite alkaline and can neutralize acid deposition indefinitely; others, especially thin mountain soils derived from granite or gneiss, buffer acid only briefly.
Effect on Trees
By removing useful nutrients from the soil, acid rain slows the growth of plants, especially trees. It also attacks trees more directly by eating holes in the waxy coating of leaves and needles, causing brown dead spots. If many such spots forms, a tree loses some of its ability to make food through photosynthesis. Also, organisms that cause disease can infect the tree through its injured leaves. Once weakened, trees are more vulnerable to other stresses, such as insect infestations, drought, and cold temperatures.
Spruce and fir forests
at higher elevations, where the trees literally touch the acid clouds, seem to
be most at risk. Acid rain has been blamed for the decline of spruce forests on
the highest ridges of the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern United States.
In the Black Forest of southwestern Germany, half of the trees are damaged from
acid rain and other forms of pollution.
Effect on Agriculture
Most farm crops are less affected by acid rain than our forests. The deep soils of many farm regions, such as those in the Midwestern United States, can absorb and neutralize large amounts of acid. Mountain farms are more at risk—the thin soils in these higher elevations cannot neutralize so much acid. Farmers can prevent acid rain damage by monitoring the condition of the soil and, when necessary, adding crushed limestone to the soil to neutralize the acid. If excessive amounts of nutrients have been leached out of the soil, farmers can replace them by adding nutrient-rich fertilizer.
Effect on Surface Water
Acid rain falls into and
drains into streams, lakes, and marshes. Where there is snow cover in winter,
local waters grow suddenly more acidic when the snow melts in the spring. Most
natural waters are close to chemically neutral, neither acidic nor alkaline:
their pH is between 6 and 8. In the northeastern United States and southeastern
Canada, the water in some lakes now has a pH value of less than 5 as a result
of acid rain. This means they are at least ten times more acidic than they
should be. In the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, a quarter of the
lakes and ponds are acidic, and many have lost their brook trout and other
fish. In the middle Appalachian Mountains, over 1,300 streams are afflicted.
All of Norway’s major rivers have been damaged by acid rain, severely reducing
salmon and trout populations.
Effect on Plants and Animals
The effects of acid rain
on wildlife can be far-reaching. If a population of one plant or animal is
adversely affected by acid rain, animals that feed on that organism may also
suffer. Ultimately, an entire ecosystem may become endangered. Some species
that live in water are very sensitive to acidity, some less so. Freshwater
clams and mayfly young, for instance, begin dying when the water pH reaches
6.0. Frogs can generally survive more acidic water, but if their supply of
mayflies is destroyed by acid rain, frog populations may also decline. Fish
eggs of most species stop hatching at a pH of 5.0. Below a pH of 4.5, water is
nearly sterile, unable to support any wildlife.
Land animals dependent on aquatic organisms are also affected. Scientists have found that populations of snails living in or near water polluted by acid rain are declining in some regions. In The Netherlands, songbirds are finding fewer snails to eat. The eggs these birds lay have weakened shells because the birds are receiving less calcium from snail shells.
Effect on Human-made Structures
Acid rain and the dry
deposition of acidic particles damage buildings, statues, automobiles, and
other structures made of stone, metal, or any other material exposed to weather
for long periods. The corrosive damage can be expensive and, in cities with
very historic buildings, tragic. Both the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, and the
Taj Mahal in Agra, India, are deteriorating due to acid pollution.
Effect on Human Health
The acidification of surface
waters causes little direct harm to people. It is safe to swim in even the most
acidified lakes. However, toxic substances leached from soil can pollute local
water supplies. In Sweden, as many as 10,000 lakes have been polluted by
mercury released from soils damaged by acid rain, and residents have been
warned to avoid eating fish caught in these lakes. In the air, acids join with
other chemicals to produce urban smog, which can irritate the lungs and make
breathing difficult, especially for people who already have asthma, bronchitis,
or other respiratory diseases. Solid particles of sulfates, a class of minerals
derived from sulfur dioxide, are thought to be especially damaging to the lungs.
Acid Rain and Global Warming
Acid pollution has one surprising effect that may be beneficial. Sulfates in the upper atmosphere reflect some sunlight out into space and thus tend to slow down global warming. Scientists believe that acid pollution may have delayed the onset of warming by several decades in the middle of the 20th century.
Efforts to Control Acid Rain
Acid rain can best be
curtailed by reducing the amount of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides released
by power plants, motorized vehicles, and factories. The simplest way to cut
these emissions is to use less energy from fossil fuels. Individuals can help.
Every time a consumer buys an energy-efficient appliance, adds insulation to a
house, or takes a bus to work, he or she conserves energy and, as a result,
fights acid rain.
A venturi air scrubber removes polluting particles from gas emissions by spraying a scrubber liquid directly into the emissions. The scrubber liquid surrounds the dirt particles, which are carried with the gas emissions into the separator cylinder. As the gas cycles upward through the cylinder, the liquid-covered particles drop from the gas into the contaminated liquid reservoir.
Another way to cut emissions
of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides is by switching to cleaner-burning fuels.
For instance, coal can be high or low in sulfur, and some coal contains sulfur
in a form that can be washed out easily before burning. By using more of the
low-sulfur or cleanable types of coal, electric utility companies and other
industries can pollute less. The gasoline and diesel oil that run most motor
vehicles can also be formulated to burn more cleanly, producing less nitrogen
oxide pollution. Clean-burning fuels such as natural gas are being used
increasingly in vehicles. Natural gas contains almost no sulfur and produces
very low nitrogen oxides. Unfortunately, natural gas and the less-polluting
coals tend to be more expensive, placing them out of the reach of nations that
are struggling economically.
Pollution can also be
reduced at the moment the fuel is burned. Several new kinds of burners and
boilers alter the burning process to produce less nitrogen oxides and more free
nitrogen, which is harmless. Limestone or sandstone added to the combustion
chamber can capture some of the sulfur released by burning coal.
Once sulfur dioxide and
oxides of nitrogen have been formed, there is one more chance to keep them out
of the atmosphere. In smokestacks, devices called scrubbers spray a mixture of
water and powdered limestone into the waste gases (flue gases), recapturing the
sulfur. Pollutants can also be removed by catalytic converters. In a converter,
waste gases pass over small beads coated with metals. These metals promote
chemical reactions that change harmful substances to less harmful ones. In the
United States and Canada, these devices are required in cars, but they are not
often used in smokestacks.
Once acid rain has occurred,
a few techniques can limit environmental damage. In a process known as liming,
powdered limestone can be added to water or soil to neutralize the acid
dropping from the sky. In Norway and Sweden, nations much afflicted with acid
rain, lakes are commonly treated this way. Rural water companies may need to
lime their reservoirs so that acid does not eat away water pipes. In cities,
exposed surfaces vulnerable to acid rain destruction can be coated with
acid-resistant paints. Delicate objects like statues can be sheltered indoors
in climate-controlled rooms.
Cleaning up sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides will reduce not only acid rain but also smog, which will make the air look clearer. Based on a study of the value that visitors to national parks place on clear scenic vistas, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency thinks that improving the vistas in eastern national parks alone will be worth $1 billion in tourism revenue a year.
In the United States, legislative efforts to control sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides began with the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970. This act established emissions standards for pollutants from automobiles and industry. In 1990 Congress approved a set of amendments to the act that impose stricter limits on pollution emissions, particularly pollutants that cause acid rain. These amendments aim to cut the national output of sulfur dioxide from 23.5 million tons to 16 million tons by the year 2010. Although no national target is set for nitrogen oxides, the amendments require that power plants, which emit about one-third of all nitrogen oxides released to the atmosphere, reduce their emissions from 7.5 million tons to 5 million tons by 2010. These rules were applied first to selected large power plants in Eastern and Midwestern states. In the year 2000, smaller, cleaner power plants across the country came under the law.
These 1990 amendments
include a novel provision for sulfur dioxide control. Each year the government
gives companies permits to release a specified number of tons of sulfur
dioxide. Polluters are allowed to buy and sell their emissions permits. For
instance, a company can choose to reduce its sulfur dioxide emissions more than
the law requires and sell its unused pollution emission allowance to another
company that is further from meeting emission goals; the buyer may then pollute
above the limit for a certain time. Unused pollution rights can also be
‘banked’ and kept for later use. It is hoped that this flexible market system
will clean up emissions more quickly and cheaply than a set of rigid rules.
Legislation enacted in Canada restricts the annual amount of sulfur dioxide emissions to 2.3 million tons in all of Canada’s seven easternmost provinces, where acid rain causes the most damage. A national cap for sulfur dioxide emissions has been set at 3.2 million tons per year. The legislation is currently being developed to enforce stricter pollution emissions by 2010.
Norwegian law sets the goal of reducing sulfur dioxide emission to 76 per cent of 1980 levels and nitrogen oxides emissions to 70 per cent of the 1986 levels. To encourage cleanup, Norway collects a hefty tax from industries that emit acid pollutants. In some cases, these taxes make it more expensive to emit acid pollutants than to reduce emissions.
Acid rain typically crosses national borders, making pollution control an international issue. Canada receives much of its acid pollution from the United States—by some estimates as much as 50 per cent. Norway and Sweden receive acid pollutants from Britain, Germany, Poland, and Russia. The majority of acid pollution in Japan comes from China. Debates about responsibilities and cleanup costs for acid pollutants led to international cooperation. In 1988, as part of the Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution Agreement sponsored by the United Nations, the United States and 24 other nations ratified a protocol promising to hold yearly nitrogen oxide emissions at or below 1987 levels. In 1991 the United States and Canada signed an Air Quality Agreement setting national limits on annual sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants and factories. In 1994 in Oslo, Norway, 12 European nations agreed to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by as much as 87 per cent by 2010.
Legislative actions to prevent acid rain have results. The targets established in laws and treaties are being met, usually ahead of schedule. Sulfur emissions in Europe decreased by 40 per cent from 1980 to 1994. In Norway, sulfur dioxide emissions fell by 75 per cent during the same period. Since 1980 annual sulfur dioxide emissions in the United States have dropped from 26 million tons to 18.3 million tons. Canada reports sulfur dioxide emissions have been reduced to 2.6 million tons, 18 per cent below the proposed limit of 3.2 million tons.
Monitoring stations in several nations report that precipitation is actually becoming less acidic. In Europe, lakes and streams are now growing less acid. However, this does not seem to be the case in the United States and Canada. The reasons are not completely understood, but apparently, controls reducing nitrogen oxide emissions only began recently and their effects have yet to make a mark. In addition, soils in some areas have absorbed so much acid that they contain no more neutralizing alkaline chemicals. The weathering of rock will gradually replace the missing alkaline chemicals, but scientists fear that improvement will be very slow unless pollution controls are made even stricter.
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