Environment Magazine

Acid Rain – Causes and Effects

Posted on the 16 April 2013 by Rinkesh @ThinkDevGrow

What is Acid Rain?

Acid rain refers to a mixture of deposited material, both wet and dry, coming from the atmosphere containing more than normal amounts of nitric and sulfuric acids. Simply put, it means rain that is acidic in nature due to the presence of certain pollutants in the air due to cars and industrial processes . Acid rain can occur in form of rain, snow, fog or dry material that settle to earth. Acidity is determined on the basis of the pH level of the water droplets. Normal rain water is slightly acidic with a pH range of 5.3-6.0, because carbon dioxide and water present in the air react together to form carbonic acid, which is a weak acid. When the pH level of rain water falls below this range, it becomes acid rain.

It occurs due to natural and human activities. Erupting volcanoes contains some chemicals that can cause acid rain. Apart from this, burning of fossil fuels, running of  factories and automobiles due to human activities are few other reasons behind this activity.

Atmospheric Pollution water droplets

Presently, large amounts of acid deposition is witnessed in the southeastern Canada, northeastern United States and most of Europe, including portions of Sweden, Norway, and Germany. In addition, some amount of acid deposition is found in parts of South Asia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Southern India.

Forms of Acid Rain

There are two forms in which acid deposition occurs – wet and dry. Both are discussed below:

  • Wet Deposition – When the wind blows the acidic chemicals in the air to the areas where the weather is wet, the acids fall to the ground in the form of rain, sleet, fog, snow or mist. It removes acid from the atmosphere and deposit them on the earth’s surface. When this acid flows through the ground, it affects large number of plants, animals and aquatic life. The water from drain flows into rivers and canals which is them mixed up with sea water, thereby affecting marine habitats.
  • Dry Deposition – If the wind blows the acidic chemicals in the air to the areas where the weather is dry, the acidic pollutants slip into dust or smoke and fall to the ground as dry particles. These stick to the ground and other surfaces such as cars, houses, trees and buildings. Almost 50% of the acidic pollutants in the atmosphere fall back through dry deposition. These acidic pollutants can be washed away from earth surface by rainstorms.

It was discovered way back in 1800s during the Industrial Revolution. A Scottish chemist, Robert Angus Smith, was first to discover this phenomenon in 1852 as a relationship between acid rain and atmospheric pollution in Manchester, England. But it gained public attention mainly in 1960s. The term was coined in 1972 when the NY Times published reports about the climate change effects which started arising due to the occurrence of acid rain in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire.

Causes of Acid Rain

Both natural and man-made sources are known to play a role in the formation of acid rain. But, it is mainly caused by combustion of fossil fuels which results in emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx).

Natural sources such as erupting volcanoes, rotting vegetation and sea sprays produce sulfur dioxide and fires, bacterial decomposition and lightening generate nitrogen dioxide. The chemicals released by natural sources gets mixed up with water and oxygen and are disperse over large areas because of wind patterns.

Man-made sources include emission of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides due to combustion of fossil fuels. Roughly two-thirds of all sulfur dioxide and one-fourth of all nitrogen oxides come from generation of electricity through burning of fossil fuels such as coal. These gases react in the atmosphere with water, oxygen, and other chemicals to form various acidic compounds such as sulfuric acid, ammonium nitrate, and nitric acid. The existing winds blow these acidic compounds over large areas across borders and they fall back to the ground in the form of acid rain or other forms of precipitation. Upon reaching the earth, it flows across the surface, absorbs into the soil and enters into lakes and rivers and finally gets mixed up with sea water.

The gases i.e. i.e. sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) are primarily gases occurring from electric power generation by burning coal and responsible for acid rain.

Effects of Acid Rain

Acid rain has significant effects on the world environment and public health.

  • Effect on Aquatic Environment – Acid rain either falls directly on aquatic bodies or gets run off the forests, roads and fields to flow into streams, rivers and lakes. Over a period of time, acids get accumulated in the water and lower the overall pH of the water body. The aquatic plants and animals need a particular pH level of about 4.8 to survive. If the pH level falls below that the conditions become hostile for the survival of aquatic life.
  • Effect on Forests – It makes trees vulnerable to disease, extreme weather, and insects by destroying their leaves, damaging the bark and arresting their growth. Forest damage due to acid rain is most evident in Eastern Europe – especially Germany, Poland and Switzerland.

Deforestation ForestDamage

  • Effect on Soil - As it falls on forest or field soil, it kills useful micro-organisms and leaches nutrients of soil. Many a times, this leads to calcium and other nutrient deficiency, producing infertile soils.
  • Effect on Architecture and Buildings – Acid rain on buildings, especially those constructed with limestone, react with the minerals and corrode them away. This leaves the building weak and susceptible to decay. Modern buildings, cars, airplanes, steel bridges and pipes are all affected by acid rain. Irreplaceable damage can be caused to the old heritage buildings.
  • Effect on Public Health – When in atmosphere, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide gases and their particulate matter derivatives like sulfates and nitrates, degrades visibility and can cause accidents, leading to injuries and deaths.




Image Credit: agnaldo_pereira_miguel , numbphoto

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