From the dawn of humanity, people hoped for, prayed for and celebrated the coming of rain. Most of the time. Aside from the damage of torrential rains and floods, precipitation brings life to crops and livestock. Humans, too, require water to survive. Modernity, however, found a way to make rain an unwelcome thing. The sulfur and nitrogen pumped into the atmosphere by power plants, factories, vehicles and industrial machinery acidify falling moisture. Pure water turns toxic and corrosive.
Effects of Acid Rain on the Soil
Acid rain is composed of either sulfuric acid or nitric acid. In fact, both may be present. At any rate, it can do harm as soon as it hits the ground. On one hand, soil has a built-in defense known as “buffering capacity” that keeps its alkalinity stable. Still, the combination of naturally present acids with acid rain can overwhelm this mechanism.
High-alkaline precipitation can stunt the nutritional production of organic matter and, worse, cause nutrients to be leached from the soil. Furthermore, poisonous elements like aluminum more easily run off when the pH balance is low. All in all, soil is less fertile, more prone to erosion and sometimes toxic. Sadly, the damage does not stop there.
Effects of Acid Rain on Plants
If soil suffers from the adverse effects of acidic precipitation, it stands to reason that plant life is likewise infected. The science confirms it. Acid rain not only robs the ground of nutrients. It diminishes the ability of root structures to take up what sources of nourishment might be left. Of course, some plants are better able to adapt than others. Trees, crops, flowers and herbs all have different needs and abilities.
Nevertheless, this phenomenon not only harms plants from the ground up. Acid rain falls directly on leaves and branches, destroying the coatings that protect them from the elements. In addition, the rain ravages the chloroplasts essential for photosynthesis. Without a sufficient number, plants will die. Simply stated, acid rain menaces vegetation from above and below.
Effects of Acid Rain on Wildlife
Some species of fauna are better-suited to tolerate acid rain than others. Certain insects, for example, show little disturbance from it while others die off. Fish, by contrast, decline in vigor, fertility and overall numbers because of acid rain. Harmful metals like mercury and aluminum increase in lakes, rivers and streams. In the case of aluminum, the element can attach to fish gills and cause respiratory difficulties.
Aquatic reptiles and amphibians lay eggs but their embryos can not endure where pH levels decline below 4.5 (seven signifying neutrality). Moreover, mammals suffer from acid rain when they lose vegetative cover against predators and storms. They also lose habitat in which to nest and breed. Food sources shrink, as well. Animal populations can not long thrive without these necessities of life.
Effects of Acid Rain on Humans
Some believe that because humans can swim in an acidic lake without incident that acid rain is not a threat. This, however, is only a half-truth. The noxious raw materials of acid rain – sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides – are as pernicious to people as the low-pH rain is to fish. When borne by the air these compounds induce respiratory disorders like bronchitis and asthma.
Also, nitrogen oxides can yield ground-level ozone, a primary cause of pneumonia and other pulmonary problems such as COPD. Where acid rain is falling, these unhealthy, hardly noticeable gases are permeating the air we breathe. While the precipitation itself is less detrimental, its causes are much more so, if not lethal.
Effects of Acid Rain on Buildings
Acid rain demonstrably corrodes buildings made from marble, sandstone and limestone. Public statues likewise degrade because of the impact of acidic precipitation. Nitric, sulfuric and sulfurous acid react with the materials in these edifices, causing engraving to fade. These reactions also cause blackening, peeling and crumbling. In many buildings, sharp edges eventually round off and gypsum is formed, badly discoloring the structures.
Several heritage sites around the world are imperiled by acid rain. These include the Taj Mahal in India, Hadrian’s Arch in Greece and the Leshan Buddha in China. Most of these structures were built before anyone could have imagined acidic rainfall. Multiple efforts are underway to save these edifices.
Effects of Acid Rain on Infrastructure
Not only buildings and statues receive the punishing impact of acid rain. Steel bridges, waterway locks and railroads similarly corrode from steady exposure. In addition to steel, bronze, copper, nickel and zinc are susceptible to damage from rains with a pH as high as 3.5. Mild, galvanized and stainless steel suffer from oxidation-reduction reaction when hit with acid rain. Aside from the transfer of electrons, this means the material deteriorates.
Relative to transportation and public utilities, such corrosion has enormous economic and public safety implications. While buildings and infrastructure are not part of the natural world, they do compose human habitat and immediate environment. Their sustainability, accordingly, is an environmental concern.
Effects of Acid Rain on Visibility
The sulfur and nitrogen emissions that cause acid rain also bear negatively on visibility. In fact, their particles impair perceptibility and clarity by as much as 70 percent in the eastern United States. In the west, sulfates have contributed to visibility decline in national parks like the Colorado River Plateau and the Grand Canyon. With reductions of visual discernment in these locations, the problem can not be blamed simply on urban smog. Particulates from sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides travel far and wide to wreak environmental havoc.
Whether degrading nature or the bastions of civilization, acid rain is a serious issue requiring sober action. Burning fuels cleaner, employing alternative energy sources and simply conserving resources altogether are achievable first steps. Using electric cars and public transportation reduce the need for fossil fuels. Finding new ways to protect structures, preserve soil and treat rainwater are also necessary, but need research and development. The only option that is unacceptable is to do nothing.