Acid rain, to our eyes, is not much different from regular rain, but the contents of that precipitation can be devastating to plant-life and ecosystems. Acid rain is formed in the atmosphere when gases such as sulfur dioxide are oxidized; sulfur trioxide is converted into sulfuric acid by a chemical reaction with water, or when nitrogen dioxide reacts with hydroxide to form nitric acid. The most oxidation reactions are with ozone, hydrogen peroxide, and of course, oxygen.
There are many causes of acid rain, both natural and man-made sources of gases like dimethyl sulfide, which is the most abundant biological sulfur containing compound, and also nitrogen dioxide, but some sources are more plentiful than those.
Different things may contribute to the acidification of gases in the atmosphere. Volcanoes, for example, spew out sulfurous gases which are the main source of gases that are acidified.
Fossil fuels that are burned contribute sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere.
Wild fires, surprisingly, also carry sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. There are also biological processes that occur in wetland and in the ocean that contribute to corrosive precipitation. The main sources though of sulfur containing compounds come from electricity generation plants and from motor vehicles. The electricity plants have made efforts to avoid acid rain, but there solution doesn’t really help anybody.
They used to be equipped with the small and fat smoke stacks, like you might see on a large ship, which would pour sulfurous gases into the air and cause acid rain to devastate the surrounding environment.
Now they have taller and thinner smoke stacks, but all this does is divert the effects of acid rain. Since these stacks are taller, they do not pour as much sulfur dioxide into the air that is directly surrounding the pipe; instead the sulfur dioxide is lifted high into the air and is swept away by a gust of wind or even just a breeze.
These new stacks cause wide-spread affects of acid rain rather than contained ones. Everybody knows that driving a car all over emits CO2, but few people realize that there are other harmful gases that are produced by a vehicle that contribute to problems that are equally as serious and devastating as global warming. Cars also put nitrogen dioxide and sulfurous gases into the atmosphere as well. These gases are carried throughout the atmosphere where they are either oxidized or come into contact with water vapor and then convert into acids.
These acids are condensed in the same way that water vapor is condensed into a cloud, and it can then precipitate and fall on the precious ecosystems in the world. Acid rain can affect a huge range of ecosystems, but the main ones being aquatic, those in the soil, forests, and people. Since acidic solutions have a PH that is lower than a 7, when acid rain falls into an aquatic ecosystem, a lake for example, it lowers the PH of that water and therefore makes it more acidic. Biodiversity is limited and reduced by the affects of acid rain because many species simply cannot survive in water that has a PH lower than 5.
At a PH of 5, most fish eggs won’t even hatch, so even if the water remained at a PH of 5, the adult fishes would eventually die with no offspring to replace themselves. Acid rain has lead to the destruction of ecosystems and the extinction of species in certain environments such as the brook trout that was native to Adirondack Mountains in the United States. With even one species of fish or insects that goes extinct in an ecosystem, the rest of it will struggle until it can find a solution, which it seldom does.
Many people don’t realize that soil contains intricate and delicate ecosystems that support all life that exists on land. The soil provides all of the water and all of the nutrients to the plants that nourish the organisms who eat them, so if the soil is depleted of nutrients, then organisms on land wouldn’t be as healthy as they normally would. There are enzymes in the earth that break down dead matter and produce from it the macronutrients and the micronutrients that make life for plants possible.
When acid rain falls, the corrosive liquids physically change the shape of the active site of the enzymes, therefore preventing them from breaking down the same substrates or producing the same nutrients. When an enzyme is eroded by acid rain, scientists name those damaged enzymes “denatured”. The acid dissolves the nutrients that already exist in the soil which hurts the plants right away and in the long run, but in addition to depleting the soil of nutrients, the acids can help to mobilize poisons such as magnesium and aluminum.
Acid contains hydronium ions which somehow react with these elements and make them more available to plants, and since the plants are already desperately trying to suck up as much water and nutritional substances as they can, they unknowingly take in poisons. Forests inherit the damage in the soil, and especially the higher altitude ones grab the acid directly from the clouds. The acid damages the leaves and limits a plant’s ability to photosynthesize. It also weakens the overall structure of the plant, which would make it more venerable to disease and death, especially in colder climates.
The forests that are damaged eventually look like a graveyard of trees. There is little biodiversity in the surrounding area because plants don’t survive in the acidic soil, leaving the herbivores and omnivores with no source of food. Acid rain can cause an abrupt and devastating collapse in terms of the ecosystems that a forest can support. Acid rain can both directly and indirectly affect the health of humans. Acid rain limits the biodiversity in the world and it limits our sources of food and oxygen, and it also directly causes health complications.
Acid rain mostly contributes to respiratory complications because we most often come into contact with it in the form of vapor and we then breathe in the particulate matter. The inhalation of these toxins can cause asthma, cancer, and even premature death. The problem with our bodies’ method of filtering the substances that we breathe in through our noses and through our throats, is that most particles that are small enough and have such little density can float around in the air and are usually too small to be separated from our oxygen supply.