Killer From the Sky!
“We believe that the jury is in. Scientific authorities from around the world concur that acid precipitation exists and that something must be done to curb it.” So says Robert F. Flacke, commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
“We believe the jury is still out,” retorts Carl E. Bagge, president of the National Coal Association. “The causes and effects of acid rain are unknown,” he asserts.
Two leading spokesmen, two conflicting opinions. Which side is right?
“WHEN I came up here you never saw the likes of the fishing.” As he spoke, Peter Peloquin, longtime resident and owner of a lodge alongside Canada’s Lake Chiniguchi, leaned across the table for emphasis. “In that Chiniguchi chain,” he continued, “there used to be a spectacular fishery in almost a dozen big lakes.”
But in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s curious things began happening in this lake. Young trout were wiggling on the surface—something they never normally do—and gulls made quick, easy meals of them. During the same period the last of the big fish was caught. Today there are no fish at all in Chiniguchi nor in hundreds of neighboring lakes.
What is causing this havoc? Acid rain—one of the most serious ecological problems of our time.
Industry’s Bad Breath
In North America 30 percent of acid rain is caused by nitric oxides—half of which comes from motor vehicle exhausts. The other half comes from the burning of fossil fuels, mainly coal, by electric utilities and other industries. Coal is also the source of a worse culprit, sulfur dioxide, which makes up the other 70 percent of acid rain. The annual discharge of these gases into North American skies is 60 million tons. The atmosphere is becoming a garbage dump.
Riding high on prevailing weather patterns, these oxides undergo complex and little-understood chemical changes in a medium of sunlight and water vapor. The resultant interaction produces sulfuric and nitric acids—acid rain. These acids also come down as acid snow, hail, sleet, fog and even in a dry form.
A Spreading Blight
In 1852, when English scientist Robert Angus Smith discovered acid rain near the coal-burning industrial town of Manchester, it was merely a local phenomenon. By the 1950’s and 1960’s emissions of smoke were sparking angry protest from communities located close to coal- and oil-burning plants.
The solution of the 1970’s? Build taller stacks. For example, in Sudbury, Canada’s industrial giant International Nickel (now Inco Limited) was pumping as much as 7,000 tons of sulfur dioxide into the air each day. Fumes so devastated the area that in the late 1960’s United States astronauts practiced moon walking there. Then Inco built the “superstack”—at 1,250 feet, the world’s tallest at the time! Grass, flowers and trees began to grow again in Sudbury. However, the “superstack,” along with hundreds of other stacks heightened in Canada, the United States and other countries, proved to be an ecological blunder—turning a local problem into an international one.
The vagrant pollution, now thrown high into the air, is invading other lands. Sweden and Norway are dumping grounds for pollutants from Europe’s industrialized heartland. Canada receives acidic air currents from the United States. In turn, Canada exports acid rain to the northeastern United States. Isolated islands like Hawaii and Bermuda have not escaped. Even China and countries in the southern hemisphere are affected.
What Is This Doing to the Environment?
In high-acid environments, lake waters grow unnaturally clear, as plankton and other types of microscopic life succumb. The reproduction of aquatic animals is hindered or stopped. Then, too, aluminum and other metals, normally found in harmless compounds, are released from the soil in toxic forms. The aluminum attacks the gills of fish, making breathing difficult. They literally suffocate.
Particularly tragic is springtime, when life stirs from its winter sleep, when fish are being hatched and frogs and salamanders lay their eggs in meltwater pools. The concentration of pollution in the melting snow often increases the acidity a hundredfold, preventing more than 80 percent of the eggs from hatching.
“The whole water system changes,” says Dr. Harold Harvey, pioneer acid-rain researcher. “The clams go first, then the snails, then the crayfish; and many of the aquatic insects like the mayfly, damselfly, stonefly and the dragonfly. Then you start dropping off things like amphibians. . . . Then out go the fish and so on.”
What has been the result? Trout and bass can no longer be sustained in 2,000 to 4,000 lakes in Ontario. Salmon are dying out in nine rivers in Nova Scotia where they once thrived. Government reports say 48,000 more lakes are threatened.
In the northeastern United States, over 200 lakes in the Adirondack Mountains are without fish. Ten percent of the largest fresh-water lakes in New England have joined the casualties. An Ohio government study predicts that “if something is not done quickly, 2,500 lakes a year to the end of the century will die in Ontario, Quebec and New England.”
But the casualty list is worse in Sweden. According to Environment Minister Anders Dahlgren, the number of dead lakes there has reached 20,000!
Acid rain is ruining the soil—leaching out essential nutrients like calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium. Deadly aluminum is attacking tree roots, choking off the water supply and destroying their defense against disease. In the Green Mountains of Vermont, 50 percent of the red spruce trees—young and old—have died since 1965.
Forests are also dying in England, France, Switzerland, Yugoslavia and Poland. An estimated 30 percent of the forested third of West Germany is seriously afflicted. Even if sulfur emissions remain constant, say experts, the trees lose their ability to fight off the acid. With alarm BUND (the Environment and Nature Conservation Union of Germany) reports that the extent of diseased forests in West Germany has doubled in less than a year. In Europe acid rain is called “an ecological Holocaust.”
That’s not all. Metal corrosion is increasing under this acid wash. And sulfur dioxide in the air has been turning the calcium in sandstone, limestone, concrete and plaster into crumbling calcium sulfate. In the United States the presidential Council on Environmental Quality estimates the damage to buildings and monuments at over $2,000 million annually. The columns of the Parthenon in Athens, the Colosseum in Rome, and Canada’s parliament buildings are all under attack.
As for human health, the evidence of adverse effects of acid rain is sketchy but still alarming. Acid lake water has leached out toxic lead and copper from plumbing systems into the water supply. In some areas this has caused such illness as diarrhea in babies. But more frightening have been studies suggesting that sulfur dioxide in the air causes bronchitis, emphysema and a strain on the heart and circulatory system, bringing about illnesses that may kill 50,000 Americans each year!
What Is the Solution?
Obviously, the environment must be cleaned up. But the coal industry and many Midwestern utilities say there is no conclusive evidence that stiff emission-control legislation would have any effect on acid-rain levels.
Then, on June 29, the National Research Council in the United States issued a report that, according to the magazine Science, is likely to be the definitive study on acid rain for many years. The council concluded that 90 to 95 percent of the acid rain in the American Northeast comes from man-made sources, such as industrial smoke and car exhausts. “A 50 percent reduction in the emissions of sulfur and nitrogen gases,” it is stated, “will produce about a 50 percent reduction in the acids falling on the land and water downwind of the emission source.”
The American Electric Power Company, owner of a string of Midwestern coal-burning plants, however, claims that a proposed acid-rain amendment to the Clean Air Act would increase residential rates for electricity by 50 percent and industrial rates by 80 percent.
But environmentalists disagree, citing figures of their own. According to a recent congressional cost comparison, based on a study done for Edison Electric Institute and another for the National Wildlife Federation and the National Clean Air Coalition, costs would be between $2,400 million and $4,600 million in 1990—only a 2.4- to 4.6-percent electric rate increase.
Despite the cost, a number of countries already have taken action. Japan has been efficiently treating its emissions with scrubbers for years, with a modest 12-percent increase in electrical rates. It also has a sulfur-emissions tax to penalize polluting industries. Sweden has put stiff curbs on its oil-burning industries, even though 67 percent of its pollution comes from outside its borders. All of this has been done despite claims by some polluting industries that there is not enough evidence to act.
How many more years do we have before appropriate action is taken? Warns acid-rain expert Eville Gorham: “If we wait until the last scintilla of evidence has been gathered and the entire chain of causation is proved, a fragile part of life on our planet will have been damaged.” The price for delay could be “a permanently corroded and poisoned environment, ruined fisheries, forestry and tourism industries, and possibly damaged human health,” according to an assessment of a Canadian government report.
Because of all the rhetoric, one is not sure what to believe. Environmentalists, on the one hand, are accused of overreacting to the dangers of acid rain. But, on the other hand, says Time magazine: “The concern of environmentalists is that industrialists will continue to use delaying tactics to put off costly capital improvements necessary to reduce emissions.”
However, while humans talk and bicker, a permanent remedy is already on the way. Soon, now, the Grand Creator of this earth will act to cleanse it of all selfish polluters, so that never again will the beauties of our earthly home be despoiled by acid rain or any other industrial blight. Does this sound appealing to you? Then think seriously about the Bible’s sure promise of that incoming Kingdom government.—Revelation 11:17, 18.
[Diagram on page 16]
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Acid rain is seriously harming many forests in northern United States and Europe
Calcium deficiency; treetops die
Manganese depleted; pine leaves turn yellow
Needles and leaves drop off
Protective wax coating of leaves removed. Leaves scarred. Breathing hindered
Growth of tree inhibited; less resistance to frost and pests
Supply of water and nutrients hindered
Bacteria prevented from decomposing dead leaves; fewer nutrients
Toxic aluminum destroys root ends; disease defenses impaired
Acidity leaches out essential nutrients—calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium
[Diagram on page 17]
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Europe is a caldron of airborne sulfur emissions. Forests in central Europe are dying. Thousands of acid-sensitive lakes in Scandinavia are already dead
[Diagram on page 17]
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Prevailing winds carry sulfur emissions from the Ohio River valley to Canada. In turn, Canada sends its pollution to the northeastern United States