Acid Rain: Its Effects on Aquatic Environments

Acid Rain: Its Effects on Aquatic Environments

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Acid Rain: Its Effects on Aquatic Environments

What is Acid Rain?:

Acid rain is rain, snow or fog that is polluted by acid in the atmosphere and damages the environment. Two common air pollutants acidify rain: sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx). When these substances are released into the atmosphere they are transformed into sulfuric acid (H2SO4) and nitric acid (HNO3) and can be carried over long distances by prevailing winds and return to earth as acidic rain, snow, fog or dust. When the environment cannot neutralize the acid being deposited, damage occurs.

Causes of SO2 and NOx:

* Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is generally a byproduct of industrial processes and burning of fossil fuels. Ore smelting, coal-fired power generators, and natural gas processing are the main contributors.
* The main source of NOx emissions is the combustion of fuels in motor vehicles, residential and commercial furnaces, industrial and electrical-utility boilers and engines, and other equipment

Acidification of Freshwater:

General Info:

Freshwater acidification is not an entirely new problem. First linked to the decline of salmon and other fish stocks in Norwegian rivers some sixty years ago, freshwater acidification was later identified as a problem in Scandinavia during the 1970’s. Since then, thousands of rivers and lakes have been proven acidified.

Areas most susceptible to acidification are those with an unreactive catchment such as granite and a base, nutrient-deficient soil. Areas of high acidification incidence include the United States, Canada, Scotland, Central Europe, and Scandinavia.

Any lake below pH7.0 is, by strict definition, an acid lake, but it is generally argued that acid waters are those below pH5.0 where sulfate concentrations exceed those of carbonate or the sum of calcium and magnesium content.


Acid rain enters water by two routes: directly and through the catchment. The vast majority enters through the catchment while a relatively small percentage enters directly. Acid water passes easily to the lake through catchment consisting of shallow soil cover and alkaline-deficient bedrock such as granite, which does not contain the carbonates necessary to neutralize the acid.

In areas where a continual supply of base cations is not assured then the gradual depleting of the bicarbonate in the lake means that the once stable pH will drop rapidly resulting in an acidified lake. Acidification can also occur in surges after snowmelt or drought; the first 30% of snowmelt can contain 50 - 80% of the total acids in the snow.

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During drought conditions sulfur dioxide (SO2) deposition onto the soil is reduced to sulfur and hydrogen; this is then re-oxidized in combination with rainwater to form acids. This is termed an acid pulse. (

Three Stages of Acidification:

1. Bicarbonate lake - dissolved bicarbonate neutralizes acid. pH does not fall below pH 5.5 - 6.0.
2. Transitional lake - bicarbonate buffering periodically lost during high H+ inputs. The pH fluctuates widely throughout the year.
3. Acid lake - The pH falls below 5 and metal concentrations rise. Other buffering systems within the water body usually stop the pH from dropping much below 4.5.

Acid Rain’s Affects on Aquatic Environments:

The chemical content of acid rain is in itself dangerous to fish and other freshwater organisms. Another, equally important reason why fish populations are depleted, impoverished or, as is often the case, wiped out altogether, is that acid water leaches toxic aluminum from the soils and bedrock where it naturally occurs in large amounts.

Lakes that have been acidified cannot support the same variety of life as healthy lakes. As a lake becomes more acidic, crayfish and clam populations are the first to disappear, then various types of fish. Many types of plankton—minute organisms that form the basis of the lake's food chain—are also affected. As fish stocks dwindle, so do populations of loons and other water birds that feed on them. The lakes, however, do not become totally dead. Some life forms actually benefit from the increased acidity. Lake-bottom plants and mosses, for instance, thrive in acid lakes. So do blackfly larvae.

Summary Chart: (see

Summary Effects of pH on Aquatic Life



3.5 - 3.0

toxic to most fish some plants and invertebrates can survive such as the waterbug (Hemiptera and Heteroptera), water boatmen (Corixidae) and white mosses (Sphagnum)
* salmonids are fish that belong in the Family Salmonidae. They include trouts, whitfish, salmon and smelts.

4.0 - 3.5

lethal to salmonids

4.0 -4.5

harmful to salmonids, tench, bream, roach, goldfish and the common carp all stock of fish disappear because embryos fail to mature at this level

5.0 - 4.5

harmful to salmonid eggs, fry and the common carp the lake is usually considered dead and a "wet desert" it is unable to support a variety of life

6.0 - 5.0

critical pH level, when the ecology of the lake changes greatly the number and variety of species begin to change salmon, roach and minnow begin to become less diverse less diversity in algae, zooplankton, aquatic insects, insect larvae rainbow trout do not occur and molluscs become rare there is a great decline in salmonid fishing usually there is a high concentration of aluminum present the fungi and bacteria that are important in organic matter decomposition are not tolerant so the organic matter degrades more slowly and valuable nutrients are trapped at the bed and are not released back into the ecosystem most of the green algae and diatoms (siliceous phytoplankton) that are normally present disappear.. The reduction in green plants allows light to penetrate further so acid lakes seem crystal clear and blue snails and phytoplankton disappear

9.0 - 6.5

harmless to most fish

9.5 - 9.0

harmful to salmonids, harmful to perch if persistent

10.0 - 9.5

slowly lethal to salmonids

11.0 - 10.5

lethal to salmonids*, carp, tench, goldfish and pike

11.5 - 11.0

lethal to all fish


Further damage will only be prevented if effective steps are taken to reduce the concentrations of sulfur and nitrogen in the atmosphere. Emissions reduction technology exists. The next step, therefore, is to make and enforce emissions laws. The situation cannot be remedied immediately but will take decades to right itself.

To reverse the affects of acidification lime can be added to acid lakes, either directly or to the catchment. Because it is basic, the lime serves to neutralize the acidity of the water. Although some wetland plants may be negatively affected by this method, the benefits have been shown to outweigh the disadvantages.
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