There are many things about my (N.) current job that I don’t like but the people isn’t one of them. I have had the opportunity to meet a lot of people that are thanklessly working to monitor and protect one of our most precious resources, water. Sometimes it pertains to what I’m doing and sometimes it doesn’t.
Acid rain has nothing to do with my job but I still got the chance to meet one of the state researchers. He was more than happy to give me a Cliff Notes version of what we are doing to reduce acid rain, how much progress we have made and how much more we still need to do.
According to the EPA “Acid rain is a broad term referring to a mixture of wet and dry deposition (deposited material) from the atmosphere containing higher than normal amounts of nitric and sulfuric acids. The precursors, or chemical forerunners, of acid rain formation result from both natural sources, such as volcanoes and decaying vegetation, and man-made sources, primarily emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) resulting from fossil fuel combustion. In the United States, roughly 2/3 of all SO2 and 1/4 of all NOx come from electric power generation that relies on burning fossil fuels, like coal. Acid rain occurs when these gases react in the atmosphere with water, oxygen, and other chemicals to form various acidic compounds. The result is a mild solution of sulfuric acid and nitric acid. When sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are released from power plants and other sources, prevailing winds blow these compounds across state and national borders, sometimes over hundreds of miles. ”
According to my source the Clean Air Act has helped make major strides towards getting the pH level of rain to natural levels but we are only halfway there. To truly restore the natural pH of rain we would have to create major regulations on the major sources of sulfur and nitrogen. Doing that would involve a lot of politics and so we may never see a true restoration of the natural pH balance in our ecosystem.
What does that mean for you and me? Well acid rain causes acidification of lakes and streams and contributes to the damage of trees at high elevations and many sensitive forest soils.
In addition, acid rain accelerates the decay of building materials and paints, including irreplaceable buildings, statues, and sculptures that are part of our nation’s cultural heritage.
Prior to falling to the earth, sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) gases and their particulate matter derivatives—sulfates and nitrates—contribute to visibility degradation and harm public health.
If you are interested in finding out the pH level of your rain you can get a cheap test kit at your local pet store (they are used on aquariums). Natural rain should be around 5.6 and usually dips below five when large amounts of sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxide are present. I don’t have kids or homeschool but I think this is a neat project to do with kids. You could take samples in a city environment and compare to samples further out in the country. This could lead to all sorts of discussions about the interaltionships of the water cycle and pollution and what can negatively impact that cycle.