Frontiers of Science: Acid Rain

Acid Rain

A long time ago, the Lord sent forth a great rain upon the earth that has since come to be known as the Deluge. It was sent to destroy the wicked who had transgressed the laws of God. Afterward, the Lord promised Noah that never again would the earth be visited by such a rain.

Today we are experiencing another kind of rain that is seriously affecting mankind. It is not a rain as destructive as in the days of Noah, but it does have destructive qualities. And it comes not from transgression of moral law, but from man’s transgression of the laws of nature.

As strange as it may seem, the source of the problem is progress. Take the development of electricity, for example. We all benefit greatly from the things it can do for us. But in generating electricity, vast quantities of coal and oil are burned, resulting in many different waste products. Some of the gases formed can travel thousands of miles through the air. In doing so, they often take part in chemical reactions that transform them into acids. Then, when rain washes these acids out of the air, some very unpleasant things begin to happen. Crops are stunted, lakes polluted, and soils poisoned.

Acid rain, as it is called, was first detected during the late 1950s in Scandinavian lakes and rivers, where it began killing trout and salmon. By the early 1970s it was also found falling in large amounts in northeastern United States and eastern Canada. It was so strong in the state of New York that over 100 lakes in the Adirondack Mountains were incapable of supporting any type of fish life.

Spreading from there, effects of acid rain were next observed in the Carolinas, the Smoky Mountains, and the Great Lakes. The west coast of the United States soon felt its effects, too, with isolated sections of California reporting it. And finally, late in 1979, acid rain damage was also observed high in the Colorado Rockies.

It is a sad case of man’s transgression of the laws of nature, although it was originally done unknowingly. But as repentance can work miracles for the sorrowful sinner, so can the methods of science redeem the lands and lakes made barren by man’s “global goof.”

So what is being done? As with any serious problem, the first step is to properly understand it. Today a vast army of researchers is acquiring data on the nature and extent of acid precipitation—how it is formed and what it does. For a problem of such magnitude, this is no easy task; and work is being conducted all over the world.

Next come efforts of rehabilitation. Where specific lakes are on the verge of having their fish killed from the effects of acid, lime is spread on the surfaces to neutralize the waters. The ultimate cure, however, must strike at the cause itself—the acid rain—and attempts are being made to find ways of controlling the emission of air pollutants from coal and oil burning industries. Some partial cures include the actual washing of coal and installation of scrubbers in smokestacks. Possible future techniques may also include mixing limestone with coal to neutralize the acid-forming gases and developing new methods of burning that create less of these gases. Finally, there is the possibility of a technological breakthrough that will allow us to use a very different form of energy that is nonpolluting such as solar, wind, or wave power.

But just as the problem took many years to develop, it will also take many years to solve. And I would not be surprised to someday see one of you providing the key to the solution. So prepare yourselves now. You can never start too early on your way to a rewarding career in the earth sciences.

Although the Lord brought the Deluge upon the earth, he also prepared the way for its removal. But man has caused the acid rain, and man—with God’s help and inspiration—will have to devise the means for its elimination.

[photo] An example of damage done by acid rain to a mustard leaf. (Courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency.)