Acid Rain and the Adirondack Mountains
Acid rain is one of those problems that people tend to ignore because, on the surface, it does not seem to have any ramifications to the individual. But this problem affects an area that I care deeply about, the Adirondack High-Peak region of the Adirondack State Park. So I thought I might take this opportunity to learn more about this problem, so that I might be better informed if the chance ever arises to do something about it.
In 1920 Swedish researchers noticed that many small lakes in the mountains of Scandinavia were becoming acidic, and in some cases, devoid of fish. Much data was gathered, and many tests done. It was not until the 1960s though that enough data was compiled to link the acidification on surface waters to acid rain. Even though the Swedish researchers hypothesized that other areas of the world might face the same problem, it wasnt until the late 1970s and early 1980s that the problem was taken seriously in America.
Acid rain is caused by rain mixing with pollutants in the atmosphere. Sulphur, chlorine, and nitrogen compounds are the principle pollutants that cause acid rain. These chemicals are released into the atmosphere primarily by the processes of burning coal to produce energy, the smelting of raw minerals, and the process of burning gas to power automobiles. Once the chemicals are released into the air they mix with water on its way down, in the process acidifying the rain. This rain then pollutes the soils and waters of the surface. Land and water has some natural buffering capability to neutralize the acids, but the extent of the acidification of acid rain overwhelms these natural buffering abilities.
Once land and water becomes acidified there are many consequences. Land loses its fertility, and growth rates for vegetation slow down. This has serious consequences for agricultural regions, because crop yields decrease. The land, having lost its vegetation, also erodes faster, and it is very hard to reclaim. There are also serious consequences when water becomes acidified. After only a relatively small change in acidity, fish lose their ability to reproduce. Greater changes in acidity cause the calcium in bones to break down, causing deformed fish, and fish that never reach maturity. Even only one lost species is a severe change to an ecosystem.
The problem with legislating against acid rain is that air is a common pool resource. Air pollution knows nothing of geopolitical boundaries, and can travel for great distances. The solution of many communities has been to build larger smokestacks, which simply moves the effects out of the local area, and into a greater region. To protect against pollutants that cause acid rain requires expensive smokestack scrubbing equipment that most companies are reluctant to pay for. It is simply easier to build a higher stack, to diffuse the problem to elsewhere.
In the six million acre State Park that makes up the Adirondacks acid rain is a major problem. Of the lakes that have been tested 170 are acid dead, bearing no fish at all, and only a small percentage of the lakes have been tested. During the 1930s only about 4 percent of the lakes had a pH less than 5. In 1979, of 2,109 Adirondack ponds, 170 were known casualties of acid precipitation. Today, 51 percent of all the lakes above 2,000 feet elevation have values less than pH 5, 90 percent of which are devoid of fish life. Normal rain has a pH of about 5.6. The rain which falls on the Adirondacks averages pH 5, which is more than ten times more acidic (the pH scale in logarithmic.)
Organisms other than fish are affected by acid rain. It has been found that creatures such as salamanders and frogs are highly susceptible to even slight changes in acidity. As pH decreases, they rapidly lose their ability to reproduce. As the smaller organisms are killed off, the effects ripple up the food chain. Soon the larger mammals are struggling for food. Acidification has been linked to increases of such chemicals as mercury in waters. Mercury poisoning makes fish unsuitable for human consumption. In effect, acid rain could also have negative consequences on humans ability to procure food as well.
Nature isnt the only thing affected by acid rain in the Adirondacks. In 30 communities studied in the Adirondacks, health department officials found that public water supplies were abnormally corrosive. The addition of chlorine only made the water that much more corrosive. Hot water standing in pipes for a few days can corrode copper pipes to the point where the water is unsafe to drink. Lead is also leached from solder joints in metal pipes, which presents a very serious health hazard, especially to small children. Rare, acid resistant bacteria have also been found in water supplies, leading to outbreaks of gastroenteritis.
Acid rain in the Adirondacks also has severe economic consequences. 55 million Americans live within a days drive of the Adirondack Park. Many of these people travel to the area for the purpose of fishing. In the early 1970s 1.7 million fishing trips were registered in the park, generating $1.5 million. But after the confirmation of nearly 100 acid-dead lakes, park researchers estimated that $1.5 million in fishing expenditures had been lost. As then parks Commissioner Anna La Bastille stated, "Weve turned that park into a national acid cesspool, and now we in the area are paying for it."
I have spent a great deal of time camping and climbing in the Adirondacks, and have seen the effects of acid rain first hand. One summer I swam in a lake totally devoid of life. The water was so clear that you could see the bottom at a depth of many feet, as if you were looking through glass. At higher elevations most of the trees are dead. It was very noticeable when you reached an elevation of 2,000 3,000 feet where there is very little soil coverage.
The problem of acid rain in the Adirondacks does not have a local cause. There are few polluters in that area. Instead, much of the airborne pollution that causes the problem originates in the Ohio Valley. Canada is also a major polluter and a good share of its pollution travels south to the United States. West to east to northeast winds from the middle of North America are the main cause of 15 million tons of sulfur dioxide emitted from 14 states east of the Mississippi and falling as acid rain in the Adirondacks and Appalachians. What is sorely needed is national and international standards designed to significantly reduce the emission of acid rain causing pollutants.
It is a shame that a beautiful national treasure such as the Adirondack State Park must be degraded because of pollution. There are few areas in the country today that are unspoiled by modern industrial activity. I hope that for the sake of future generations we can curb the problem of acid rain that continues to scar the land.
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Ann Arbor Science Publishers, 1982.
Howard, Ross, and Michael Perry. Acid Raid: The North American Forecast. Toronto:
House of Anansi Press Limited, 1980.
Howells, Gwyneth. Acid Rain and Acid Waters. West Sussex, England: Ellis Horwood
Tefft, Tim, ed. Of the Summits, of the Forests. Morrisonville, NY: The Adirondack Forty-