Acid rain: Wikis


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Acid rain is rain or any other form of precipitation that is unusually acidic, i.e. elevated levels of hydrogen ions (low pH). It has harmful effects on plants, aquatic animals, and infrastructure. Acid rain is mostly caused by emissions of compounds of sulfur, nitrogen, and carbon which react with the water molecules in the atmosphere to produce acids. However, it can also be caused naturally by the splitting of nitrogen compounds by the energy produced by lightning strikes, or the release of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere by phenomena of volcano eruptions.



"Acid rain" is a popular term referring to the deposition of wet (rain, snow, sleet, fog and cloudwater, dew) and dry (acidifying particles and gases) acidic components. A more accurate term is “acid deposition”.

Distilled water, which contains no carbon dioxide, has a neutral pH of 7. Liquids with a pH less than 7 are acidic, and those with a pH greater than 7 are bases. “Clean” or unpolluted rain has a slightly acidic pH of about 5.2, because carbon dioxide and water in the air react together to form carbonic acid, a weak acid (pH 5.6 in distilled water), but unpolluted rain also contains other chemicals.[1]

H2O (l) + CO2 (g) → H2CO3 (aq)

Carbonic acid then can ionize in water forming low concentrations of hydronium and carbonate ions:

2 H2O (l) + H2CO3 (aq) is in equilibrium with CO32− (aq) + 2 H3O+ (aq)

Acid deposition as an environmental issue would include additional acids to H2CO3.


Since the Industrial Revolution, emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides to the atmosphere have increased.[2][3] In 1852, Robert Angus Smith was the first to show the relationship between acid rain and atmospheric pollution in Manchester, England.[4] Though acidic rain was discovered in 1852, it was not until the late 1960s that scientists began widely observing and studying the phenomenon. The term "acid rain" was generated in 1972.[5] Canadian Harold Harvey was among the first to research a "dead" lake. Public awareness of acid rain in the U.S increased in the 1970s after the New York Times promulgated reports from the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire of the myriad deleterious environmental effects demonstrated to result from it.[6][7]

Occasional pH readings in rain and fog water of well below 2.4 have been reported in industrialized areas.[2] Industrial acid rain is a substantial problem in Europe, China,[8][9] Russia and areas down-wind from them. These areas all burn sulfur-containing coal to generate heat and electricity.[10] The problem of acid rain not only has increased with population and industrial growth, but has become more widespread. The use of tall smokestacks to reduce local pollution has contributed to the spread of acid rain by releasing gases into regional atmospheric circulation.[11][12] Often deposition occurs a considerable distance downwind of the emissions, with mountainous regions tending to receive the greatest deposition (simply because of their higher rainfall). An example of this effect is the low pH of rain (compared to the local emissions) which falls in Scandinavia.[13]


History of acid rain in the United States

In 1980, the U.S. Congress passed an Acid Deposition Act. This Act established a 10-year research program under the direction of the National Acidic Precipitation Assessment Program (NAPAP). NAPAP looked at the entire problem. It enlarged a network of monitoring sites to determine how acidic the precipitation actually was, and to determine long term trends, and established a network for dry deposition. It looked at the effects of acid rain and funded research on the effects of acid precipitation on freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems, historical buildings, monuments, and building materials. It also funded extensive studies on atmospheric processes and potential control programs.

In 1991, NAPAP provided its first assessment of acid rain in the United States. It reported that 5% of New England Lakes were acidic, with sulfates being the most common problem. They noted that 2% of the lakes could no longer support Brook Trout, and 6% of the lakes were unsuitable for the survival of many species of minnow. Subsequent Reports to Congress have documented chemical changes in soil and freshwater ecosystems, nitrogen saturation, decreases in amounts of nutrients in soil, episodic acidification, regional haze, and damage to historical monuments.

Meanwhile, in 1990, the US Congress passed a series of amendments to the Clean Air Act. Title IV of these amendments established the Acid Rain Program, a cap and trade system designed to control emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Title IV called for a total reduction of about 10 million tons of SO2 emissions from power plants. It was implemented in two phases. Phase I began in 1995, and limited sulfur dioxide emissions from 110 of the largest power plants to a combined total of 8.7 million tons of sulfur dioxide. One power plant in New England (Merrimack) was in Phase I. Four other plants (Newington, Mount Tom, Brayton Point, and Salem Harbor) were added under other provisions of the program. Phase II began in 2000, and affects most of the power plants in the country.

During the 1990s, research has continued. On March 10, 2005, EPA issued the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR). This rule provides states with a solution to the problem of power plant pollution that drifts from one state to another. CAIR will permanently cap emissions of SO2 and NOx in the eastern United States. When fully implemented, CAIR will reduce SO2 emissions in 28 eastern states and the District of Columbia by over 70 percent and NOx emissions by over 60 percent from 2003 levels.[14 ]

Overall, the Program's cap and trade program has been successful in achieving its goals. Since the 1990s, SO2 emissions have dropped 40%, and according to the Pacific Research Institute, acid rain levels have dropped 65% since 1976.[15][16] However, this was significantly less successful than conventional regulation in the European Union, which saw a decrease of over 70% in SO2 emissions during the same time period.[17]

In 2007, total SO2 emissions were 8.9 million tons, achieving the program's long term goal ahead of the 2010 statutory deadline.[18]

The EPA estimates that by 2010, the overall costs of complying with the program for businesses and consumers will be $1 billion to $2 billion a year, only one fourth of what was originally predicted.[15]

Emissions of chemicals leading to acidification

The most important gas which leads to acidification is sulfur dioxide. Emissions of nitrogen oxides which are oxidized to form nitric acid are of increasing importance due to stricter controls on emissions of sulfur containing compounds. 70 Tg(S) per year in the form of SO2 comes from fossil fuel combustion and industry, 2.8 Tg(S) from wildfires and 7-8 Tg(S) per year from volcanoes.[19]

Natural phenomena

The principal natural phenomena that contribute acid-producing gases to the atmosphere are emissions from volcanoes and those from biological processes that occur on the land, in wetlands, and in the oceans. The major biological source of sulfur containing compounds is dimethyl sulfide.

Acidic deposits have been detected in glacial ice thousands of years old in remote parts of the globe.[11]

Human activity

The principal cause of acid rain is sulfur and nitrogen compounds from human sources, such as electricity generation, factories, and motor vehicles. Coal power plants are one of the most polluting. The gases can be carried hundreds of kilometres in the atmosphere before they are converted to acids and deposited. In the past, factories had short funnels to let out smoke, but this caused many problems locally; thus, factories now have taller smoke funnels. However, dispersal from these taller stacks causes pollutants to be carried farther, causing widespread ecological damage.

Chemical processes

Combustion of fuels creates sulfur dioxide and nitric oxides. They are converted into sulfuric acid and nitric acid.[20]

Gas phase chemistry

In the gas phase sulfur dioxide is oxidized by reaction with the hydroxyl radical via an intermolecular reaction [4]:

SO2 + OH· → HOSO2·

which is followed by:

HOSO2· + O2 → HO2· + SO3

In the presence of water, sulfur trioxide (SO3) is converted rapidly to sulfuric acid:

SO3 (g) + H2O (l) → H2SO4 (l)

Nitrogen dioxide reacts with OH to form nitric acid:

NO2 + OH· → HNO3

Chemistry in cloud droplets

When clouds are present, the loss rate of SO2 is faster than can be explained by gas phase chemistry alone. This is due to reactions in the liquid water droplets.


Sulfur dioxide dissolves in water and then, like carbon dioxide, hydrolyses in a series of equilibrium reactions:

SO2 (g) + H2O is in equilibrium with SO2·H2O
SO2·H2O is in equilibrium with H+ + HSO3
HSO3 is in equilibrium with H+ + SO32−

There are a large number of aqueous reactions that oxidize sulfur from S(IV) to S(VI), leading to the formation of sulfuric acid. The most important oxidation reactions are with ozone, hydrogen peroxide and oxygen (reactions with oxygen are catalyzed by iron and manganese in the cloud droplets).

For more information see Seinfeld and Pandis (1998).[4]

Acid deposition

Processes involved in acid deposition (note that only SO2 and NOx play a significant role in acid rain).

Wet deposition

Wet deposition of acids occurs when any form of precipitation (rain, snow, etc.) removes acids from the atmosphere and delivers it to the Earth's surface. This can result from the deposition of acids produced in the raindrops (see aqueous phase chemistry above) or by the precipitation removing the acids either in clouds or below clouds. Wet removal of both gases and aerosols are both of importance for wet deposition.

Dry deposition

Acid deposition also occurs via dry deposition in the absence of precipitation. This can be responsible for as much as 20 to 60% of total acid deposition.[21] This occurs when particles and gases stick to the ground, plants or other surfaces.

Adverse effects

This chart shows that not all fish, shellfish, or the insects that they eat can tolerate the same amount of acid; for example, frogs can tolerate water that is more acidic (i.e., has a lower pH) than trout.

Acid rain has been shown to have adverse impacts on forests, freshwaters and soils, killing insect and aquatic life-forms as well as causing damage to buildings and having impacts on human health.

Surface waters and aquatic animals

Both the lower pH and higher aluminum concentrations in surface water that occur as a result of acid rain can cause damage to fish and other aquatic animals. At pHs lower than 5 most fish eggs will not hatch and lower pHs can kill adult fish. As lakes and rivers become more acidic biodiversity is reduced. Acid rain has eliminated insect life and some fish species, including the brook trout in some lakes, streams, and creeks in geographically sensitive areas, such as the Adirondack Mountains of the United States.[22] However, the extent to which acid rain contributes directly or indirectly via runoff from the catchment to lake and river acidity (i.e., depending on characteristics of the surrounding watershed) is variable. The United States Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) website states: "Of the lakes and streams surveyed, acid rain caused acidity in 75 percent of the acidic lakes and about 50 percent of the acidic streams".[22]


Soil biology and chemistry can be seriously damaged by acid rain. Some microbes are unable to tolerate changes to low pHs and are killed.[23] The enzymes of these microbes are denatured (changed in shape so they no longer function) by the acid. The hydronium ions of acid rain also mobilize toxins such as aluminium, and leach away essential nutrients and minerals such as magnesium.[24]

2 H+ (aq) + Mg2+ (clay) is in equilibrium with 2 H+ (clay) + Mg2+ (aq)

Soil chemistry can be dramatically changed when base cations, such as calcium and magnesium, are leached by acid rain thereby affecting sensitive species, such as sugar maple (Acer saccharum).[25][26]

Forests and other vegetation

Effect of acid rain on a forest, Jizera Mountains, Czech Republic

Adverse effects may be indirectly related to acid rain, like the acid's effects on soil (see above) or high concentration of gaseous precursors to acid rain. High altitude forests are especially vulnerable as they are often surrounded by clouds and fog which are more acidic than rain.

Other plants can also be damaged by acid rain, but the effect on food crops is minimized by the application of lime and fertilizers to replace lost nutrients. In cultivated areas, limestone may also be added to increase the ability of the soil to keep the pH stable, but this tactic is largely unusable in the case of wilderness lands. When calcium is leached from the needles of red spruce, these trees become less cold tolerant and exhibit winter injury and even death.[27][28]

Human health

Scientists have suggested direct links to human health.[29] Fine particles, a large fraction of which are formed from the same gases as acid rain (sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide), have been shown to cause illness and premature deaths such as cancer and other diseases.[30] For more information on the health effects of aerosols see particulate health effects.

Other adverse effects

Effect of acid rain on statues

Acid rain can also damage buildings and historic monuments, especially those made of rocks such as limestone and marble containing large amounts of calcium carbonate. Acids in the rain react with the calcium compounds in the stones to create gypsum, which then flakes off.

CaCO3 (s) + H2SO4 (aq) is in equilibrium with CaSO4 (aq) + CO2 (g) + H2O (l)

The effects of this are commonly seen on old gravestones, where acid rain can cause the inscriptions to become completely illegible. Acid rain also increases the oxidation rate of metals, in particular copper and bronze.[31][32]

Affected areas

Particularly badly affected places around the globe include most of Europe (particularly Scandinavia with many lakes with acidic water containing no life and many trees dead) many parts of the United States (states like New York are very badly affected) and South Western Canada. Other affected areas include the South Eastern coast of China and Taiwan.

Potential problem areas in the future

Places like much of South Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand), Western South Africa (the country), Southern India and Sri Lanka and even West Africa (countries like Ghana, Togo and Nigeria) could all be prone to acidic rainfall in the future.

Prevention methods

Technical solutions

In the United States, many coal-burning power plants use Flue gas desulfurization (FGD) to remove sulfur-containing gases from their stack gases. An example of FGD is the wet scrubber which is commonly used in the U.S. and many other countries. A wet scrubber is basically a reaction tower equipped with a fan that extracts hot smoke stack gases from a power plant into the tower. Lime or limestone in slurry form is also injected into the tower to mix with the stack gases and combine with the sulfur dioxide present. The calcium carbonate of the limestone produces pH-neutral calcium sulfate that is physically removed from the scrubber. That is, the scrubber turns sulfur pollution into industrial sulfates.

In some areas the sulfates are sold to chemical companies as gypsum when the purity of calcium sulfate is high. In others, they are placed in landfill. However, the effects of acid rain can last for generations, as the effects of pH level change can stimulate the continued leaching of undesirable chemicals into otherwise pristine water sources, killing off vulnerable insect and fish species and blocking efforts to restore native life.

Automobile emissions control reduces emissions of nitrogen oxides from motor vehicles.

International treaties

A number of international treaties on the long range transport of atmospheric pollutants have been agreed e.g. Sulphur Emissions Reduction Protocol under the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution.

Emissions trading

In this regulatory scheme, every current polluting facility is given or may purchase on an open market an emissions allowance for each unit of a designated pollutant it emits. Operators can then install pollution control equipment, and sell portions of their emissions allowances they no longer need for their own operations, thereby recovering some of the capital cost of their investment in such equipment. The intention is to give operators economic incentives to install pollution controls.

The first emissions trading market was established in the United States by enactment of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. The overall goal of the Acid Rain Program established by the Act[33] is to achieve significant environmental and public health benefits through reductions in emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), the primary causes of acid rain. To achieve this goal at the lowest cost to society, the program employs both regulatory and market based approaches for controlling air pollution.

See also


  1. ^ Likens, G. E., W. C. Keene, J. M. Miller and J. N. Galloway. 1987. Chemistry of precipitation from a remote, terrestrial site in Australia. J. Geophys. Res. 92(D11):13,299-13,314.
  2. ^ a b New Science Directorate Bio Mass Burning Redirect
  3. ^ Weathers, K. C. and G. E. Likens. 2006. Acid rain. pp. 1549–1561. In: W. N. Rom (ed.). Environmental and Occupational Medicine. Lippincott-Raven Publ., Philadelphia. Fourth Edition.
  4. ^ a b c Seinfeld, John H.; Pandis, Spyros N (1998). Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics - From Air Pollution to Climate Change. John Wiley and Sons, Inc. ISBN 0-471-17816-0
  5. ^ Likens, G. E., F. H. Bormann and N. M. Johnson. 1972. Acid rain. Environment 14(2):33-40.
  6. ^ Likens, G. E. and F. H. Bormann. 1974. Acid rain: a serious regional environmental problem. Science 184(4142):1176–1179.
  7. ^ Search the HBES Publications
  8. ^ Galloway, J. N., Zhao Dianwu, Xiong Jiling and G. E. Likens. 1987. Acid rain: a comparison of China, United States and a remote area. Science 236:1559–1562.
  9. ^ CHINA: Industrialization pollutes its country side with Acid Rain
  10. ^ [1]
  11. ^ a b Likens, G. E., R. F. Wright, J. N. Galloway and T. J. Butler. 1979. Acid rain. Sci. Amer. 241(4):43-51.
  12. ^ Likens, G. E. 1984. Acid rain: the smokestack is the “smoking gun.” Garden 8(4):12-18.
  13. ^
  14. ^ US EPA: A Brief History of Acid Rain
  15. ^ a b 'Cap-and-trade' model eyed for cutting greenhouse gases, San Francisco Chronicle, December 3, 2007.
  16. ^ Facts On File News Services Databases
  17. ^ Gilberston, T. and Reyes, O. 2009. Carbon Trading: how it works and why it fails. Dag Hammerskjold Foundation: 22
  18. ^ Acid Rain Program 2007 Progress Report, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, January 2009.
  19. ^ Berresheim, H.; Wine, P.H. and Davies D.D., (1995). Sulfur in the Atmosphere. In Composition, Chemistry and Climate of the Atmophere, ed. H.B. Singh. Van Nostran Rheingold ISBN
  20. ^ Clean Air Act Reduces Acid Rain In Eastern United States, ScienceDaily, Sept. 28, 1998
  21. ^ UK National Air Quality Archive: Air Pollution Glossary
  22. ^ a b US EPA: Effects of Acid Rain - Surface Waters and own Aquatic Animals
  23. ^ Rodhe, H., et al. The global distribution of acidifying wet deposition. Environmental Science and TEchnology. vlo. 36, no. 20 (October) p. 4382-8
  24. ^ US EPA: Effects of Acid Rain - Forests
  25. ^ Likens, G. E., C. T. Driscoll, D. C. Buso, M. J. Mitchell, G. M. Lovett, S. W. Bailey, T. G. Siccama, W. A. Reiners and C. Alewell. 2002. The biogeochemistry of sulfur at Hubbard Brook. Biogeochemistry 60(3):235-316.
  26. ^ Likens, G. E., C. T. Driscoll and D. C. Buso. 1996. Long-term effects of acid rain: response and recovery of a forest ecosystem. Science 272:244-246.
  27. ^ DeHayes, D.H., Schaberg, P.G., and G.R. Strimbeck. 2001. Red Spruce Hardiness and Freezing Injury Susceptibility. In: F. Bigras, ed. Conifer Cold Hardiness. Kluwer Academic Publishers, the Netherlands.
  28. ^ Lazarus, B. E., P. G. Schaberg, G. Hawley and D. H. DeHayes. 2006. Landscape-scale spatial patterns of winter injury to red spruce foliage in a year of heavy region-wide injury. Can. J. For. Res. 36:142-152.
  29. ^ Introduction | Acid Rain | New England | US EPA
  30. ^ US EPA: Effects of acid rain - human health.
  31. ^ ICP on effects on materials
  32. ^ Approaches in modeling the impact of air pollution-induced material degradation
  33. ^ Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, 42 U.S. Code 7651

Further reading

  • John McCormick, Acid Earth: The Global Threat of Acid Pollution (London: Earthscan, 1989) ISBN 185383033X
  • Likens, G. E., R. F. Wright, J. N. Galloway and T. J. Butler. 1979. Acid rain. Sci. Amer. 241(4):43-51.
  • Weathers, K. C. and G. E. Likens. 2006. Acid rain. pp. 1549–1561. In: W. N. Rom (ed.). Environmental and Occupational Medicine. Lippincott-Raven Publ., Philadelphia. Fourth Edition.

External links

Simple English

Acid rain is rain or any other form of precipitation that is unusually acidic, i.e. elevated levels of hydrogen ions (low pH). It can have harmful effects on plants, aquatic animals, and infrastructure through the process of wet deposition. Acid rain is caused by emissions of compounds of ammonium, carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur which react with the water molecules in the atmosphere to produce acids. Governments have made efforts since the 1970s to reduce the production of sulfuric oxide into the Earth's atmosphere with positive results. However, it can also be caused naturally by the splitting of nitrogen compounds by the energy produced by lightning strikes, or the release of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere by volcano eruptions.

People started making acid rain when they started building many factories and power stations which burned coal or oil.[1] When these fuels are burned, they produce harmful gases.

Britain produces about five million tonnes of these gases every year.[1] China produces eighteen million tonnes.[1] The United States of America produces more than twenty million tonnes.[1] The wind carries the gases high into the sky. There, they come together with water in the sky. This makes acid rain, acid fog, and acid snow.


Acid rain poisons rivers and lakes. Fish and other animals cannot live in acid water.[1] It is also bad for buildings. The acid is harmful for the stone.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Border, Rosemary (2001). Pollution. Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX2 6DP: Oxford Universiy Press. ISBN 0 19 422868 1. 


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