Normal rainfall is slightly acidic because carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dissolves in the raindrops to produce hydrogen ions. Yet, normal rainfall is not considered acid rain. Acid rain is a form of air pollution in which airborne acids produced by electric utility plants and other sources fall to Earth in distant regions. The corrosive nature of acid rain causes widespread damage to the environment. The problem begins with the production of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, natural gas, and oil, and from certain kinds of manufacturing. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides react with water and other chemicals in the air to form sulfuric acid, nitric acid, and
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The acid compounds are carried by air currents and the wind, sometimes over long distances. When clouds or fog form in acid-laden air, they too are acidic, and so is the rain or snow that falls from them. Acid pollutants also occur as dry particles and as gases, which may reach the ground without the help of water. When these “dry” acids are washed from ground surfaces by rain, they add to the acids in the rain itself to produce a still more corrosive solution. The combination of acid rain and dry acids is known as acid deposition.
The acids in acid rain react chemically with any object they contact. Acids are corrosive chemicals that react with other chemicals by giving up hydrogen atoms. The acidity of a substance comes from the abundance of free hydrogen atoms when the substance is dissolved in water. Rain, snow, or fog with a pH below 5.6 is considered acid rain. When bases mix with acids, the bases lessen the strength of an acid (see Acids and Bases). This buffering action regularly occurs in nature. Rain, snow, and fog formed in regions free of acid pollutants are slightly acidic, having a pH near 5.6. Alkaline chemicals in the environment, found in rocks, soils, lakes, and streams, regularly neutralize this precipitation. But when precipitation is highly acidic, with a pH below 5.6, naturally occurring acid buffers become depleted over time, and nature’s ability to neutralize the acids is impaired. Acid rain has been linked