“I have acid rain in my head and it’s killing the flowers in my heart.”
Acid Rain: Causes, Effects & Solutions
Acid rain can be defined as rain or any other kind of precipitation that is unusually acidic, which means that it has higher levels of hydrogen and thus a lower pH-score. It is caused by emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, which react with water molecules in the atmosphere and produce acid rain.
Acid rain has harmful effects on the environment, especially on aquatic animals and plants. It has also shown damaging effects on freshwaters, soils and insects.
Moreover, also humans are adversely affected since acid rain causes corrosion of steel structures (e.g. bridges) and the weathering of statues and stone buildings. Acid rain can also have a negative impact on human health.
“Acid rain” is defined as a mixture of wet and dry acidic components. Distilled water has a neutral pH of 7 (once carbon dioxide is removed). Liquids with pH greater than 7 are alkaline, and those with a pH of less than 7 are acidic.
Unpolluted rain has an acidic pH between 5 and 5.5, the pH of acid rain is usually around 4.0. The difference seems not to be that great. However, a drop from 5 to 4 on the pH-scale means that acid rain is 10-times more acid than normal rain.
Forms of Acid Rain
Acid rain can manifest in two forms, wet and dry deposition. Wet deposition occurs when any form of precipitation like snow, rain, etc. removes acids from the atmosphere and delivers them to the surface of the earth.
This can be the result of the precipitation removing acids either in or below clouds or from the deposition of acids formed in raindrops. Wet removal of both aerosols and gases both plays an important role in wet deposition. Dry deposition occurs when gases and particles stick to the ground, plants or other surfaces.
Causes for Acid Rain
- Natural Causes
- Electricity generation
- Industrial processes and consumption levels
The main source that naturally contributes to acid rain are emissions from volcanoes. The emission of gases from volcanoes leads to an increase in the acidity level of rain, impacting the surrounding vegetation, wildlife and also humans in an adverse manner.
However, there are several other causes of acid rain, including gases produced by biological processes that occur in wetlands, oceans and on land. This includes wildfires, lightning strikes and decaying vegetation.
Apart from natural causes, human behavior plays a major role in the contribution to acid rain. Sulfur and nitrogen are produced in big amounts in the process of generating electricity, for motor vehicles, for (animal) agriculture and in factories.
Acid rain does not only affect local areas, but also affects large surrounding regions. Through winds and other weather conditions, acid rain is spread across whole countries and even across borders. When the acid rain hits the ground, it reaches lakes, rivers and the groundwater.
The generation of electricity through the use of coal and the resulting gaseous contamination is one of the biggest contributing factors for the emergence of acid rain. Coal still is the most important substance when it comes to electricity production worldwide.
Especially since the industrial revolution period has happened, the demand for energy increased dramatically. Another trend in our current century is the development of artificial intelligence and machine learning, which will lead to even more electricity demand in the future since in many jobs, machines will replace humans.
However, in the coal combustion process related to the production of electricity, large amounts of sulfur oxides enter the air, which reacts with water molecules in the atmosphere, eventually resulting in acid rain.
Especially high amounts of gases that lead to acid rain are also caused by the automotive industry and the resulting extensive number of cars and the corresponding traffic. In our daily life, almost everyone owns one or even more cars.
The use of cars is considered the standard means of transportation of our society right now. Even for small distances, people often use cars instead of just walking or using a bicycle. This behavior leads to excessive traffic and therefore to an excessive amount of harmful gases that are emitted into the atmosphere.
These gases eventually return to the earth in the form of acid rain. The phenomenon of acid rain is especially severe in areas that have a high population density compared to rural areas since the number of inhabitants usually positively correlates with the number of cars and therefore leads to more emissions and eventually to more acid rain.
Agriculture also plays an important role as a factor for acid rain. On the one hand, farmers often use excessive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides in order to maximize their crop yields. However, these substances can contain substances like nitrogen compounds which can eventually result in acid rain.
On the other hand, for the purpose of meat production, there is a vast number of farm animals worldwide which emit large quantities of harmful gases like methane, resulting in both in acid rain and also contributing to the global warming problem.
Industrial processes and consumption levels
In many industrial processes, harmful substances like nitrogen oxides or sulfur dioxides are released into the air. Since our society always wants to have the newest clothes, technological items, cars and so on, our consumption levels exploded compared to 100 years ago.
Although we are able to afford many material things that our ancestors could not even have dreamed of, this consumption behavior also has a serious downside.
Higher levels of consumption also imply a higher level of air pollution, including the pollution with substances that cause acid rain. Thus, industrial processes as a consequence of our high consumption levels play a major role in the acid rain debate.
Effects of Acid Rain
- Effects on aquatic environments
- Effects on animals and plants
- Effects on forests
- Effects on global warming
- Effects on soil
- Effects on vegetation cover
- Effects on buildings
- Effects on health
Effects on aquatic environments
When acid rain comes to the ground, it impacts all forms of water systems, including lakes, rivers and oceans. Also, the groundwater system is eventually affected by acid rain. This leads to an overall drop in pH-levels in the entire water system.
If the pH level is below a certain threshold, it can harm or even kill a significant amount of water animals and plants. Moreover, a low pH-score also diminishes the reproduction rate of water animals, since it can destroy fish eggs. In the long run, acid rain can even lead to the extinction of certain water animals.
Effects on animals and plants
There is also an adverse effect of acid rain on many animals and plants. Animals and plants need certain living conditions in order to survive. If these living conditions are altered, they may be forced to move to other areas. Acid rain leads to a change in these living conditions since it makes the soil more acid.
A higher level of acidity in the soil leads to a change in the growth behavior of plants. Many plants need a stable pH-level in order to grow. If the pH-level changes due to acid rain, the plants may no longer be able to grow. Animals that eat these plants lose some of their natural food sources which may lead to a decrease in animal populations.
Effects on forests
Acid rain can also have harmful effects on forests and the associated vegetation. Forests, like many plants, need a certain pH-level to grow in an optimal way. If acidity levels are altered due to acid rain, trees may no longer be able to grow.
Moreover, the trees and the corresponding ecosystem are more vulnerable to insect destruction, diseases, and damages caused by extreme weather. Thus, acid rain can have severe impacts on our forests and on the corresponding environmental system.
Effects on global warming
Since acid rain can lead to a degradation of forests, it can also indirectly contribute to the global warming problem. Since trees are a natural storage space for CO2, dying forests are no longer able to store this harmful greenhouse gas.
If forests are dying off, they release the stored CO2 into the atmosphere and therefore contribute to the global warming issue.
Effects on soil
Due to the change in pH-levels of soil through acid rain, several processes of the soil are adversely affected. This includes chemical composition, microorganisms and biological activities.
Microorganisms that are not able to adapt to the acidic conditions will simply die off which in turn has negative consequences for other processes building on microorganism activities. Moreover, nutrients and minerals in the soil may be withdrawn from the soil.
Effects on vegetation cover
The negative effects of acid rain on vegetation cover are not at all surprising. The vegetation cover is the first layer when the rain hits the ground.
Thus, the acidity can directly affect and harm this surface. Especially affected are forests in high altitudes since they, in addition to rain, are also affected by clouds and fogs.
The effects on vegetation cover and thus on the related vegetation can be dramatic since the vegetation usually reacts quite sensitive to changes in pH-levels. Forest and other plants may eventually die off because of the increased acidity levels.
Effects on buildings
Acid rain can be quite damaging to buildings. In fact, especially for limestone buildings, acid rain is quite a problem since it can react with minerals and could lead to corrosion of the buildings. Eventually, these building types will even decay from acid rain if no measures are taken against this process.
Effects on health
Acid rain can have adverse effects both on human as well as on environmental health.
Although there is no direct impact from acid rain on human health since it is too dilute to cause serious problems, one of the indirect causes of acid rain is that gases like nitrogen oxide or sulfur dioxide and certain derivatives can impact the visual visibility and thus cause traffic accidents.
Moreover, not acid rain but gaseous particles like nitrogen or sulfur can cause heart and lung problems.
Solutions to the Acid Rain Problem
- Optimize fossil energy processes
- Transition to renewable energies
- Confine the use of fertilizers and pesticides
- Restoring environments
- Save energy
- Reduce consumption levels
- Convince others
- Government regulations
Optimize fossil energy processes
Since a large fraction of our electricity supply comes from fossil fuels like gas, coal and oil, great amounts of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are produced which heavily contributes to acid rain. While burning fuel mainly accounts for nitrogen emissions, burning coal is the main contributor to the emission of sulfur dioxide.
However, modern technology can mitigate this problem dramatically. There are processes that can reduce gas emission by up to 95%.
Thus, there should be a great focus on research, including the use of artificial intelligence, in order to further reduce sulfur and nitrogen emissions in the future.
Transition to renewable energies
Another supplementary solution is the transition from fossil to renewable energies for the generation of electricity. Some examples are geothermal, wind, solar or hydropower energy sources. By abandoning the usage of coal, oil and gas, the nitrogen and sulfur emissions could be greatly reduced.
In order to accomplish a full transition to renewable energies, much effort should be put into research and development for renewable energy sources. There should also be subsidies for companies that really make an impact on the transition process to renewable energies.
Confine the use of fertilizers and pesticides
Since the excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers lead to pollution with nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides which in turn lead to acid rain, a reduction in the use of these substances may also mitigate the acid rain problem to a certain extent.
We have to make sure that farmers understand the problem of excessive fertilizer use and that they are also willing to change their practices to a more environmental-friendly and sustainable farming behavior.
Damages caused by acid rain can often be fixed. For example, there is a process called limed where lime is put in large amounts in rivers or lakes, thus increasing pH-levels. However, this is associated with high costs and has to be executed repeatedly in order to sustain the pH-level at a moderate level.
Moreover, this is just a try to fight the symptoms. Fighting the sources of nitrate and sulfur gases should be the primary effort in order to mitigate the acid rain problem.
Everyone who is consuming energy should be aware that he contributes to the acid rain problem. Thus, in order to mitigate this problem, we should save energy whenever possible. There are so many possibilities to save energy in our daily lives.
This could include turning off lights when not needed or using public transport or even bicycles instead of cars. Another measure would be not to use an elevator and walk instead if possible in your physical condition. Thus, people can make their contribution in their daily lives to mitigate the acid rain problem.
Reduce consumption levels
Since the industrial revolution has taken place, our consumption levels skyrocketed. Due to the use of machines and the resulting mass production, material goods became quite cheap and affordable for many people.
This may sound great at a first glance. However, our excessive consumption behavior also causes severe issues, also contributing to the acid rain problem.
Since for the production of material goods, large amounts of energy and resource have to be processed, also many harmful gases are released into the air, including nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide.
These substances are known to cause acid rain. Moreover, also in our food production processes, elements that contribute to acid rain are produced. Especially in the production process of meat, the livestock emits many harmful gases which contribute to global warming and also to acid rain.
Since our meat consumption levels are quite high at the moment, we also contribute to the acid rain issue through our meat consumption. A reduction in meat consumption as well as a reduction in the consumption of material goods would therefore mitigate the acid rain issue to a certain extent.
As an additional step, governments and municipalities should support renewable energies and punish fossil energy use. Thus, firms have a bigger financial incentive to enhance the process for the transition from fossil to renewable energies. This will eventually lead to a reduction in the acid rain problem.
Moreover, not only industries but also private people should be rewarded if they behave in an ecologically senseful manner. For example, governments could subsidize the price for public transport in order to give people an incentive to switch from using their car to using a train and thus save energy and stop pollution
Another point related to the „convince others“ solution is the education of people. This education has to start at an early stage in elementary school. People have to grow up with a sense of what they are doing and how they are harming and also saving the environment.
When people learn this at an early stage, the likelihood that they also pay attention to their environmental behavior when they are adults increases drastically.
However, we also have to educate adults since many of them are not aware or don’t care about how their actions affect the acid rain problem.
We have to make sure that adults understand that their behavior has major influence on the life quality of their children in the future. If people understand this, they are much more likely to save electricity and thus to contribute to a sustainable ecological future.
Individual actions are a first part of solving the acid rain problem, but through convincing others to overthink their actions and raise their awareness regarding their energy consumption, an impact can be made in a much bigger way.
Convincing others to reduce energy consumption can lead to a state in which these convinced people convince other people and so on. In the end, you can create a large circle of convinced people which can make a real impact on the consumption of energy.
Acid rain can be caused either by natural events or by human behavior. Human behavior plays a much bigger role in the production of acid rain than natural events.
Acid rain can be a significant contributor to environmental decay. Since it is spread broadly all over the globe through winds, clouds and fog, it impacts the whole ecological system in an adverse manner.
Water animals and plants can die if the pH-level is getting too low and the acidity therefore too high. Forests can suffer since they are also quite sensitives to changes in the pH-level.
Also, the vegetation cover and the soil can be harmed in a dramatic way. In order to mitigate the issue of acid rain, on the one hand, we have to optimize the current production processes of oil, gas and coal.
On the other hand, we have to transit to renewable resources for the production of electricity in order to further reduce the emission of sulfur and nitrogen gases which cause acid rain. From acid rain-affected areas can be partly restored by using lime to increase pH-levels. However, this process is costly and has to be repeated.
To fight the cause, not only the symptoms of acid rain, we have to also make changes in our daily life behavior. Our consumption of electricity is a major cause of the emergence of acid rain.
We have to decrease our energy demands in order to fight this issue on an individual level. Moreover, convincing others to save energy is a powerful weapon against acid rain.
We have to make sure that people understand the problem and that they can pay their share by consuming less energy. Through all these measures, the acid rain issue can be mitigated in an effective way and thus the environment can be protected against this acid enemy.
If you like, please find more facts and stats regarding acid rain.
About the author
My name is Andreas and my mission is to educate people of all ages about our environmental problems and how everyone can make a contribution to mitigate these issues.
As I went to university and got my Master’s degree in Economics, I did plenty of research in the field of Development Economics.
After finishing university, I traveled around the world. From this time on, I wanted to make a contribution to ensure a livable future for the next generations in every part of our beautiful planet.
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