Saturday, April 10, 2010

Normally while rain travels through the air, it dissolves floating chemicals and washes down particles that are suspended in air. At the start of its journey raindrops are neutral (pH = 7). In clean air, rain picks up materials that occur naturally such as dust, pollen, some CO2 and other chemicals produced by lightening or volcanic activities. These substances make rain slightly acidic (pH = 6), which is not dangerous. However, when rain falls through polluted air, it comes across chemicals such as gaseous oxides of sulphur (SOx), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), mists of acids such as hydrochloric and phosphoric acid, released from automobile exhausts industrial plants, electric power plants etc.

These substances dissolve in falling rain making it more acidic than normal with pH range between 5.6 -3.5. In some case, it's pH gets lowered to the extent of 2. This leads to acid rain. The term acid rain is used here to describe all types of precipitation, namely, rain, snow, fog and dew more acidic than normal.

Chemistry of acid rain

In the natural processes of volcanic eruptions, forest fires and bacterial decomposition of organic oxides of sulphur and nitrogen, production and reductions of gases naturally tend to an equilibrium. Power plants, smelting plants, industrial plants, burning of coal and automobile exhausts, release additional sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and acidic soot, causing pollution. Sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide interact with water vapours in presence of sunlight to form sulphuric acid and nitric acid mist.

formation of sulphurous acid rain

formation of sulphuric acid rain
formation of nitric and nitrous acid rain

The formed sulphuric acid and nitric acid remain as vapour at high temperatures. These begin to condense as the temperature falls and mix with rain or snow, on the way down to the Earth and make rain sufficiently acidic.

Harmful effects of acid rain

SOx, NOx mixed with water as acid rain causes plant, animal and material damage. Some of the significant ill effects of acid rain are:

Damage to animals

Acid rain chemically strips waterways of necessary nutrients and lowers the pH to levels where plants and animals cannot live. Most of the aquatic animals cannot survive when the pH is less than 4. Some species of fish, such as salmon, die even when the pH is less than 5.5. Certain species of algae and zooplankton are eliminated at pH less than 6. A reduction in the zooplankton and bottom fauna ultimately affects the food availability for the fish population. The problem is most severe downwind of industrial areas where fishing and tourism are major sources of income such as in Norway and Sweden.

Damage to plants

Acidic water is dangerous to plants. Sulphuric and nitric acid rain washes nutrients out of the soil, damages the bark and leaves of trees and harms the fine root hairs of many plants which are needed to absorb water. Leaf pigments are decolorized because acid affects green pigment (chlorophyll) of plants. Agricultural productivity is also decreased. Several non-woody plants, such as barley, cotton and fruit trees like apple, pear, etc., are severely affected by acid rain. Since the acid concentration increases near the base of clouds by density, high altitude trees and vegetation may be exposed to pH levels as low as 3. Unique areas such as the Black Forest in Germany and sugar maples in Vermont (USA) are particularly threatened.

Material damage

Metallic surfaces exposed to acid rain are easily corroded. Textile fabrics, paper and leather products lose their material strength or disintegrate by acid rain.

Building materials such as limestone, marble, dolomite, mortar and slate are weakened on reaction with acid rains because of the formation of soluble compounds.

reaction of acid rain on  limestone marble dolomite mortar slate
Thus, acid rain is dangerous for historical monuments.

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