Definition of Acid Rain

Acid rain is given as a popular expression for the more scientific term - acid deposition that refers to the several ways where acidity can move from the atmosphere to the surface of Earth. Acid deposition includes acidic rain and other forms of acidic wet deposition - such as sleet, hail, snow, and fog (or cloud water). Also, acid deposition includes the dry deposition of gases, acidic particles, which may affect landscapes during dry periods. Hence, acid deposition is capable of affecting landscapes and living things, which reside within them even when precipitation is not taking place.

About Acidity

Acidity is the measure of hydrogen ions (H+) concentration in a solution. The pH scale measures whether a solution is either acidic or basic. The substances are considered acidic below a pH value of 7, and every unit of pH below 7 has 10 times more H+, or 10 times more acidic, than the unit above it. For example, rainwater with a pH of 4.0 has a concentration of 100 micro equivalents of H+ per litre, whereas rainwater with a pH value of 5.0 contains a concentration of 10 micro equivalents of H+ per one litre.

Nitrogen Cycle

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Normal rainwater is defined as weakly acidic due to the absorption of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, which is a process that produces carbonic acid and forms organic acids that are generated from biological activity. Additionally,  volcanic activity may form nitric acid (HNO3), hydrochloric acid (HCl), and sulfuric acid (H2SO4) based on the emissions associated with particular volcanoes.

The generation of nitrogen oxides from atmospheric molecular nitrogen (N2) conversion by lightning and the organic nitrogen conversion by wildfires are two other natural causes of acidification. The geographic range of any given natural source of acidification, on the other hand, is very limited, and in most instances, it only lowers the pH value of precipitation to around 5.2.

Sulfur Cycle

Sedimentary rocks that emit hydrogen sulphide gas, as well as human sources such as fossil-fuel combustion and smelters, all of which release sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, are mentioned below as major sulfur-producing sources.

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Anthropogenic activities, specifically the burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas) and the smelting of metal ores, are the primary causes of acid deposition. In the US, electric utilities produce around 70% of SO2 and around 20% of NOx emissions. Fossil fuels, which are burned by vehicles, account for around 60% of NOx emissions in the US. Sulfuric and nitric acids are generated in the atmosphere and react with water, when SO2 and NOx, respectively.

The acid rain chemical reaction is given below.

The simplest reactions of acid rain chemical formula or the formation of acid rain chemical equation are given as:

SO2 + H2O → H2SO4 ↔ H+ + HSO4 ↔ 2H+ + SO42

NO2 + H2O → HNO3 ↔ H+ + NO3

By the equation of acid rain given above,

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Wet deposition products are created by these specific reactions in the aqueous phase (for example, in cloud water). They can produce dry, acidic deposition in the gaseous phase. Also, acid formation can take place on particles in the atmosphere.

Where the fossil fuel consumption is large and the emission controls are not in place to reduce NOx and SO2 emissions, the acid deposition will take place in areas downwind of the emission sources, often ranging from hundreds to thousands of km away. In that type of area the pH of precipitation may average 4.0 to 4.5 annually, and the pH of individual rain events may sometimes drop below 3.0.

Ecological Effects of Acid Deposition

Effects on Lakes and Rivers

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the regional effects of acid deposition were first noted in parts of western Europe and eastern North America, in the chemistry, the changes of both the lakes and rivers, often in a few remote areas, were linked to declines in the health of aquatic species such as crayfish, the resident fish, including the clam populations.

Excess amounts of acid deposition in the sensitive areas caused tens of thousands of streams and lakes in both Europe and North America to become very more acidic than they had been in the previous decades. Acid-sensitive areas are the ones, which are predisposed to acidification due to either the soil regions having a low buffering capacity or a low acid-neutralizing capacity (ANC).

Effects on Forested and Mountainous Regions

Forests in southern Scandinavia, central Europe, and eastern North America displayed troubling signs of forest dieback and tree mortality in the 1970s and 1980s. In a survey conducted in 1993, 27 European countries have revealed that air pollution damage or mortality in 23% of the 100,000 trees surveyed.

Also, it is likely that the dieback was the result of several factors, including the acid deposition (for example, soil acidification and buffering capacity loss), exposure to the ground-level ozone, possible excess fertilization from the nitrogen compound deposition (such as ammonium, nitrates, ammonia compounds), and general stress, which is caused by a combination of these factors.

Once a tree is in a weakened condition, it is very likely to succumb to other environmental stressors such as insect infestation, drought, and pathogen infections. Often, the forest dieback areas were found to be associated with regions having low buffering capacity where damage to the aquatic ecosystems because of acid deposition was also taking place.

The below figure shows the spruce trees, which are damaged by acid rain in Karkonosze National Park, Poland.

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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

1. What is Acid Deposition?

Answer: Acid deposition has been linked to changes in soil chemistry and the declination of many tree species, both directly and indirectly. Particularly, poorly buffered soils are susceptible to acidification because they lack significant base cations amounts (positively charged ions), which neutralize acidity. Magnesium, calcium, potassium, and sodium, which are the base cations that account for most of the capacity of soils’ acid-neutralizing, are derived from the weathering of rocks and from dry and wet deposition.

2. What is Acid Rain?

Answer: Acid rain is the water droplets, which are unusually acidic because of the atmospheric pollution, most notably, excessive amounts of both nitrogen and sulfur released by the cars and industrial processes. Also, acid rain can be referred to as acid deposition because this term includes other forms of acidic precipitation like snow.

3. Give the Effects of Acid Rain?

Answer: Let us discuss the effect of acid rain on Forests & Vegetation Cover, and the Plantations. By killing the trees' leaves, stopping their growth, and damaging the bark, it makes them vulnerable to disease, severe weather, and insects.

4. List Some Gases that Cause Acid Rain?

Answer: Mainly, acid rains are caused by nitrous and sulfur oxides. These gases are the result of burning fossil fuels.