Acid Precipitation: Definition, Causes & Effects

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  • 0:00 What Is Acid Precipitation?
  • 1:16 Causes of Acid Precipitation
  • 1:37 Environmental & Other Effects
  • 3:05 Preventing Acid Precipitation
  • 3:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Linda Fye
Explore the way that acid precipitation develops and the role that we play in it. Learn about the different environmental and human problems that it can cause.

What Is Acid Precipitation?

Look at the picture of the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. Have you ever wondered how it has become so damaged over the years? Well, acid precipitation is the cause of a lot of it, and it happened in only 30 years. Acid Precipitation, or what you have probably heard called acid rain, is one of many environmental problems that have developed since the Industrial Revolution. It has led to many serious issues in the latter part of the 1900s.

The Parthenon in Athens, Greece
The Parthenon in Athens, Greece

For you to understand acid precipitation, you need to know the meanings of both an acid and precipitation. An acid is measured by the concentration of hydrogen ions and is ranked on what we call the pH scale. Acids have a low value on the pH scale. For example, lemon juice and soft drinks are both very acidic. Normal rain has a pH of 5.6, but acid rain can be up to 100 times more acidic. Precipitation is any type of liquid or solid water that falls from the clouds to the ground. It's not only rain, but also snow, hail, dew, or even fog. Any of these things can transfer pollutants in the atmosphere onto Earth's surface, and when that happens, it's considered acid precipitation.

Causes of Acid Precipitation

Sulfuric and nitric acids are the main culprits in the formation of acid precipitation. Sulfur dioxide is released from power plants, and nitrogen oxides come from car exhaust. When they enter the atmosphere as pollution, they can travel hundreds of miles until they mix with the moisture in the atmosphere to form the acids that eventually reach Earth's surface and cause damage.

Environmental & Other Effects

One serious threat to Earth is to lakes and streams. When acids mix with waterways, it can kill off the fish, plants and insects living there. A pH lower than 5 can stop fish eggs from hatching. This is a large problem in the eastern US and in Europe. Trout and other fish in these areas have been seriously depleted.

Another threat is to vegetation. Acid sucks the nutrients that the plants need to grow right out of the soil. This can make trees in a forest look a sickly yellow color or even completely die out. Areas that burn a lot of coal, like Ohio, have caused forests in the mountains of places like North Carolina and Vermont to die off. In some cases, as much as 50 percent of the forest has died or is unhealthy. Forests on mountaintops are very vulnerable to the damage caused by acid precipitation because they have thin soil.

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