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Acid Rain

August 12, 2010 by  


science 08-09-10 Acid rain is a 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 sulfur dioxide into the 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.

The corrosive effect of polluted, acidic city air on limestone and marble was noted in the 17th century by John Evelyn, who remarked upon the Arundel marbles “miserably neglected, & scattred up & downe about the Gardens & other places of Arundell-house, & how exceedingly the corrosive aire of London impaired them”. Since the Industrial Revolution, emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides to the atmosphere have increased. In 1852, Robert Angus Smith was the first to show the relationship between acid rain and atmospheric pollution in Manchester, England. 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. 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.

Occasional pH readings in rain and fog water of well below 2.4 have been reported in industrialized areas. Industrial acid rain is a substantial problem in Europe, China, Russia and areas down-wind from them. These areas all burn sulfur-containing coal to generate heat and electricity. 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. 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.

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.

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. 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.

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

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.

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