how to prevent acid rain

Are you an eco-conscious consumer saddened to see lifeless lakes or dead forests? Do you become disheartened by photos of dying coral reefs that should be bursting with color?  

All of these environmental problems stem from the acids produced by the burning of fossil fuels: specifically sulfuric, nitric, and carbonic acids.

As more and more scientists become alarmed about the impending, cataclysmic effects of our climate crisis, individuals may wonder what they can do in their day-to-day lives to reduce the catastrophic effects of our climate emergency.

Fortunately, there are several actions you can take — today — to lessen your personal environmental footprint.

In this article, we focus on how carbon-conscious consumers can prevent acid rain caused by fossil fuel combustion.

What is acid rain?

The term acid rain refers to the abnormally low pH (making it acidic) of all atmospheric precipitation forms including snow, sleet, hail, and fog. 

So, acidic rain is not just rain but everything wet.

The term is a misnomer in another sense. Acid rain can be dry when it’s on dust particles in the air. 

Whether wet or dry, acid rain has a pH under 7, which is neutral. Measurements of 4-5 are common. 

the pH scale from 0 to 14
Source: EPA

This may not seem like a lot. However, since pH is measured on a logarithmic scale, a difference of one pH point (pH 5 and 6, for example) means rain at pH 5 is actually 10 times more acidic than rain at pH 6. (A pH slightly under 6 is normal for rain.)   

Similarly, snow at pH = 4 is 100 times more acidic than hail at pH = 6.

What causes acid rain?

Volcanoes, wildfires, and decaying plants are natural sources of acidity in the environment when they produce sulfur-, nitrogen- and carbon-containing substances. These chemicals are formed via reactions with oxygen and water in the air through multi-step processes. The resulting compounds are sulfuric, nitric, and carbonic acids. 

The main source of acid rain is human-caused burning of fossil fuels. 

Sulfur is a contaminant, principally of coal, oil, and diesel fuel, that is released when they’re burned in power plants, homes, some cars, or construction vehicles. Once in air, sulfur combines with oxygen to form sulfur dioxide. In a subsequent reaction with the water vapor also present in air, sulfuric acid forms.

Similarly, the burning of gasoline (derived from crude oil) in internal combustion engines — like in most cars and trucks — results in the formation of nitrogen-oxygen precursors. These later react with water vapor in air to form nitric acid.

Lastly, the major product of all fossil fuel burning responsible for climate change is carbon dioxide. It reacts with water vapor to create carbonic acid. 

What are the effects of acid rain?

There are many effects of acid rain, and they are all negative.  

First, although many of these acidic pollutants are formed in cities, they are airbound and can travel hundreds of miles. Far from their sources, they may wreak environmental havoc on water bodies, forests, and marine life.

acid rain pathway
This image illustrates the pathway for acid rain in our environment: (1) Emissions of SO2 and NOx are released into the air, where (2) the pollutants are transformed into acid particles that may be transported long distances. (3) These acid particles then fall to the earth as wet and dry deposition (dust, rain, snow, etc.) and (4) may cause harmful effects on soil, forests, streams, and lakes.
Source: EPA

Here are some examples of the disruptions that acid rain can do in ecosystems:

  • Fish, amphibian, and insect reproductive problems
  • Dead or dying trees from acidic soil and leaf absorption
  • Bird habitat destruction
  • Coral reef bleaching
  • Marine exoskeleton softening (base of ocean food webs)

The pollution carried in acid rain is also responsible for worsening respiratory diseases in people. It also damages urban monuments and stone buildings.

What can I do to prevent acid rain?

Fortunately, there are many ways you can prevent acid rain. Today, your options go far beyond turning lights off in vacant rooms or recycling (which are great to do anyway). 

Purchase or install renewable energy for home use

Energy that doesn’t lead to acid rain during its operation includes all forms of renewable energy.

You may DIY install it yourself or have it installed at your home by qualified professionals.

If you’re unable to convert your home to green energy, it’s possible in most of the United States to choose your electricity provider. Make sure it’s green! 

Be sure to read the fine print, too. They may not all be what you think. 

Here are a few companies to look into finding a renewable energy provider near you:

Switch to battery- or electric-operated lawn mowers and edgers

Do you know that lawn equipment emissions are very poorly regulated — if at all?

Not surprisingly, they top the list of worst pollution offenders.

Here are some options instead of small spark-ignition engines and other gasoline-powered tools:

Hopefully, you’ll choose human-powered snow shovels and leaf rakes instead of the electric versions. You’ll cut down even more on toxic emissions that accelerate our climate crisis and cause acid rain.

Drive an electric vehicle

Going carless is the best way to eliminate acidic pollution from a car you drive. You simply don’t have one!

Public transportation is also an excellent option.

For those who still want to drive but not personally contribute to the acid rain problem caused by gasoline-powered car engines, an electric vehicle may be in your future.

Here are a few choices:

Switch to an electric fireplace or electric stove (not gas or wood-burning)

Have you heard of Denver’s brown cloud? An ominous, ugly layer of pollution that hangs above the mountain city for an increasingly longer part of the year.

Wood-burning fireplaces are partly responsible for it. 

Even though your city or town may not have its own brown cloud, it’s still true that conventional fireplaces and woodstoves contribute to the development of fossil fuel-derived pollution, including acid rain.

a satellite shot of a brown cloud over China
Atmospheric brown cloud over China
Source: Wikimedia / Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC

Electric versions of these indoor burning polluters are available. For instance:

Switch to an electric grill (not gas or wood)

Carbon-conscious consumers who enjoy grilling can lessen their personal environmental footprint by choosing an electric, smokeless grill.

Many options are available including:

Takeaways on how you can prevent acid rain

Individuals looking for ways to lessen their environmental footprint could take specific steps to reduce their contribution to the acid rain problem caused by fossil fuel burning.

Costs stemming from weather-related events intensified by climate change, $210 billion in the United States alone in 2020, are likely to go much higher in future years if fossil fuel use continues its upward trend.

Although systemic change, especially in the energy sector, is needed to avert the worst case scenarios, eco-conscious folks can step up to the plate, too.

Purchasing or installing renewable energy and switching to an all-green electric lifestyle will go far in reducing your personal fossil fuel footprint in connection to the acid rain problem. Who knows? You just may influence your friends, family, and neighbors to do the same.

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