Acid rain results when sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOX) are emitted into the atmosphere and transported by wind and air currents. The SO2 and NOX react with water, oxygen and other chemicals to form sulfuric and nitric acids. These then mix with water and other materials before falling to the ground.
While a small portion of the SO2 and NOX that cause acid rain is from natural sources such as volcanoes, most of it comes from the burning of fossil fuels. The major sources of SO2 and NOX in the atmosphere are:
- Burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity. Two thirds of SO2 and one fourth of NOX in the atmosphere come from electric power generators.
- Vehicles and heavy equipment.
- Manufacturing, oil refineries and other industries.
- Winds can blow SO2 and NOX over long distances and across borders making acid rain a problem for everyone and not just those who live close to these sources.
Chemistry of Acid Rains
Acid rain is caused by a chemical reaction that begins when compounds like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are released into the air. These substances can rise very high into the atmosphere, where they mix and react with water, oxygen, and other chemicals to form more acidic pollutants, known as acid rain. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides dissolve very easily in water and can be carried very far by the wind. As a result, the two compounds can travel long distances where they become part of the rain, sleet, snow, and fog that we experience on certain days.
Human activities are the main cause of acid rain. Over the past few decades, humans have released so many different chemicals into the air that they have changed the mix of gases in the atmosphere. Power plants release the majority of sulfur dioxide and much of the nitrogen oxides when they burn fossil fuels, such as coal, to produce electricity. In addition, the exhaust from cars, trucks, and buses releases nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide into the air. These pollutants cause acid rain.
Normal precipitation—such as rain, sleet, or snow—reacts with alkaline chemicals, or non-acidic materials, that can be found in air, soils, bedrock, lakes, and streams. These reactions usually neutralize natural acids. However, if precipitation becomes too acidic, these materials may not be able to neutralize all of the acids. Over time, these neutralizing materials can be washed away by acid rain. Damage to crops, trees, lakes, rivers, and animals can result.
Impacts of Acid Rain
Impact on Biota and Human Life
The ecological effects of acid rain are most clearly seen in aquatic environments, such as streams, lakes, and marshes where it can be harmful to fish and other wildlife. As it flows through the soil, acidic rain water can leach aluminum from soil clay particles and then flow into streams and lakes. The more acid that is introduced to the ecosystem, the more aluminum is released.
Some types of plants and animals are able to tolerate acidic waters and moderate amounts of aluminum. Others, however, are acid-sensitive and will be lost as the pH declines. Generally, the young of most species are more sensitive to environmental conditions than adults. At pH 5, most fish eggs cannot hatch. At lower pH levels, some adult fish die. Some acidic lakes have no fish. Even if a species of fish or animal can tolerate moderately acidic water, the animals or plants it eats might not. For example, frogs have a critical pH around 4, but the mayflies they eat are more sensitive and may not survive pH below 5.5.
Dead or dying trees are a common sight in areas effected by acid rain. Acid rain leaches aluminum from the soil. That aluminum may be harmful to plants as well as animals. Acid rain also removes minerals and nutrients from the soil 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 and needles. The trees are then less able to absorb sunlight, which makes them weak and less able to withstand freezing temperatures.
How to control Acid Rain
- Energy conservation
The biggest step that you can take to prevent acid rain is to decrease your energy consumption. Close the lights when you leave the room and turn off computers and televisions when you’re not using them. Whenever you’re not using an electrical appliance, simply shut it off to conserve energy.
Because cars are a major contributor to acid rain pollution, it’s important to find alternate modes of transportation in an effort to decrease our reliance on fossil fuels.
- Alternative fuels
An excellent way to prevent acid rain is to stop using nonrenewable fuels and switch over to renewable sources of energy, such as solar, wind and water energy. As the technology for these alternative energies increases, they will become more accessible to the public.