Causes and Effects of Thermal Pollution

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  • 0:00 Definition of Thermal…
  • 1:12 Causes
  • 2:43 Effects
  • 4:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Josh Corbat

Josh has taught Earth Science and Physical Science at the High School level and holds a Master of Education degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.

Pollution always seems to be a hot topic. From air pollution to the pollution of our drinking water, we are constantly aware of how we are changing our planet. In this lesson, we'll explore the causes and effects of one type of pollution: thermal pollution.

Definition of Thermal Pollution

Think about where you live. What is the climate like? If you live a long way north or south of the equator, it is generally pretty cold throughout the year. If you live closer to the equator, it is generally warmer. Now imagine if for some reason, the temperature of your area increased by a few dozen degrees. For some, this would change how you live your life. You may wear different clothing or build different houses. For others, this might mean that you can no longer live in that area. Too much of a temperature increase is capable of killing human beings. This would not be a good situation if this were to happen to our planet.

Many types of pollution are very straightforward. Air pollution is the pumping of gases and particles that cause harm into the air. Water pollution is any type of activity that leads our drinking water sources to become contaminated.

Thermal pollution is lesser-known. In thermal pollution, human activity causes a body of water to increase or decrease in temperature, though in the majority of cases it is a temperature increase. This increase or decrease can be thought of in much the same way as our introductory scenario. In some cases, the shift only changes life slightly. In others, it's game over.


There are a few leading causes of thermal pollution, but the cause that scientists are most focused on is electricity-generating power plants. In most cases, power plants burn some sort of fuel to make heat. This heat is then used to generate electricity. Not all the heat can be captured in this process, though, and it must be taken care of somehow.

Often, a body of water, either natural or built specifically for the power plant, is used to cool down this heat; however, it's only considered thermal pollution if a natural body of water is used. Pipes take heated water out of the power plant and into the body of water, cooling the power plant in the process. The really bad part is that all power plants that use some sort of fuel have the potential to cause thermal pollution. This includes coal and nuclear, the two primary fuel-based power plants.

Although power plants are the main culprit, other human-run facilities are also responsible for thermal pollution. Many manufacturing plants use nearby bodies of water to cool the machinery inside. Sometimes, this leads to significant thermal pollution. Unlike power plants, though, manufacturing plants do not tend to produce as much waste heat. A few other causes of thermal pollution are deforestation and streamside erosion, since they remove shade, and urban water runoff, since hot pavement transfers heated water into sewers and nearby bodies of water. These are far less common than the thermal pollution caused by power plants, but still worth knowing.

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