Environment: Earth headed for a bad acid trip

Earth’s natural systems may not be able to handle increasing levels of acidification of the air, water and soil. Photo courtesy NASA.

Study tries to pinpoint future acidification hot spots

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — You’ve heard about acid mine drainage and ocean acidification, but the problems don’t end there.

After reviewing a slew of scientific papers from different disciplines, researchers found that  combustion of fossil fuels, smelting of ores, mining of coal and metal ores, and application of nitrogen fertilizer to soils are all driving down the pH of the air, water, and the soil at rates far faster than Earth’s natural systems can buffer. That could pose threats to both land and sea life.

The research was presented at a poster session of the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting in North Carolina. See the abstract here.

“It’s a bigger picture than most of us know,” said Janet Herman of the Department of Environmental Sciences at University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

In their work, Herman and USGS researcher Karen Rice tried to anticipate future acidification hot spots to enable communities to plan proactively and mitigate the harmful environmental effects, says Herman.

Acidification is both a local and global problem, since it can be as close as a nearby stream contaminated by mine tailings or as far-reaching as the world’s oceans, which are becoming more acidic as sea water absorbs higher concentrations of carbon dioxide that humans dump into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels.

Coal gives a double whammy by being the biggest contributor of anthropogenic carbon dioxide to the global atmosphere as well as creating regional acidification. Coal burning is famous for creating acid rain, which had dramatic environmental impacts on forests, streams, and lakes in eastern North America and Europe and led to major policy changes.

“It’s not at all clear that other regions are considering such policy restrictions to be important,” Herman says, regarding places where population growth is expected to increase acidifying activities.

Normally, acids in the environment are buffered by alkaline compounds released by the weathering of minerals in rocks. The problem today, according to Herman, is that the rate of acidification by human activities has outstripped the weathering rate and buffering capacity of the planet.


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