What is Thermal Pollution?

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 is one of the greatest threats against our environment. We often overlook the fact that pollution isn't simply smoke and industrial waste. In this lesson, we'll take a look at a lesser-known type of pollution: thermal pollution.

Some Hot Water

Yellowstone National Park is world famous for its geysers and hot springs. Yellowstone is situated on top of a mantle hot spot that provides it with volcanic heat. This heat is what powers the geysers and hot springs, though many of them are cool enough for people to swim in them. These springs are heated naturally and, therefore, the environment around them has evolved to accommodate these amazing features. But what happens when a body of water is heated by a process that is anything but natural?

Thermal pollution occurs when a body of water is heated to an unnaturally high temperature by a man-made process. Typically, the man-made process that generates the heat that warms the body of water is electricity production at a power plant. As the power plant operates, massive amounts of heat are produced to boil water into steam, which is then forced through pipes in order to spin the turbine that produces electricity. The heat then must be removed from the plant, often by pumping the heated water into a nearby body of water. Depending on the surrounding environment, this thermal pollution can either be good or bad.

A power plant causing thermal pollution in a nearby body of water.
Power Plant and Thermal Pollution

Examples of Thermal Pollution Around the World

Iceland is known as a strong leader in the movement toward sustainable, green energy. They have an advantage in this, however; Iceland is located directly over a tectonic plate boundary, which means volcanic activity (and heat) are abundant. The Icelandic people figured out long ago that this was something they could capitalize on. Geothermal power plants convert heat from within the Earth to electricity, and Iceland is a global leader in geothermal power plant technology. A side effect of a particular geothermal power plant in Iceland is the heating of a nearby body of water known as the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon attracts huge numbers of tourists that swim in the crystal blue, clear water. In this particular case, thermal pollution can be viewed as a good thing.

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