Ecosystems

How does acid rain affect aquatic ecosystems?
Answered by Discovery Channel
  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. Acid rain is a term for material that comes from the atmosphere, from natural and manmade sources, and that contains unusually high levels of sulfuric and nitric acids. Natural causes of acid rain might be ash from volcanic eruptions, and manmade culprits are emissions from humans burning fossil fuels. It's most likely that acid rain is primarily from man's actions. Studies analyzing sediment cores in the 1980s showed that most of the lakes from which the cores were taken had only become acidic within 10 to 50 years before the study [source: New York DEC]. Acid rain has been linked to many serious adverse effects on ecosystems, especially aquatic ecosystems on which it falls. That's because watery environs and the surrounding soil often have limited capacities to buffer the water and maintain ideal pH balances.

    Once the acid level rises above the buffering capacity of a particular area, the acid begins to draw aluminum out of the ground. Aluminum -- along with overly acidic waters -- is toxic to lots of fish and other species in lakes and streams. Some species can better tolerate acid in water than others. Generally, acid rain affects the youngest members of a species the most, because eggs won't hatch. As acid rain effects increase, some or all adult fish die [source: Environmental Protection Agency]. And even species that aren't directly affected by the alterations can easily lose important sources of food if too much exposure occurs in a given area, decreasing biodiversity even further.

    The effects of acid rain are felt mostly in our lakes, streams, wetlands and other aquatic environments. The only way to reduce acid rain is to decrease the levels of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere. In the United States, this is accomplished in many ways. Caps are placed on the total SO2 and NOX emissions allowed at power plants. These targets are met by using low-sulfur coal and clean-coal technologies like wet scrubbers and flue gas desulphurization systems. Catalytic converters remove nitrogen oxides and other pollutants from car exhausts. The most effective way to combat SO2 and NOX levels, however, is to reduce the use of fossil fuels altogether. Using more hydropower and nuclear, wind and solar power, none of which depend on fossil fuels, can accomplish this goal. People also can help by cutting their use of these fuels and choosing to walk, carpool, bicycle or use public transportation when possible.

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