The Threat

From the 1970s onward, acid rain started to gain national and international attention as a threat to the environment. A direct result of human air pollution, acid rain occurs when large amounts of fossil fuels with high sulfur content, like coal, release sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the air. Once exposed to elements in the atmosphere, these oxides then undergo chemical transformations into acids, which, when deposited upon land or water, have damaging effects on the local ecosystems. For example, acid precipitation lowers the pH of aquatic systems, which endangers the aquatic life.

Unlike many localized environmental problems, the effects of acid rain are widespread and not confined to the areas in which the sulfur dioxides originated. Studies in Scandinavia determined that winds from Great Britain and continental Europe were carrying pollutants to Norway and Sweden, acidifying their lakes and streams. This same phenomenon was occurring in North America: heavy fossil fuel burning in places like Texas made toxic waste products airborne, and cross-country winds carried and deposited these pollutants in states as far away as Minnesota. This was an example of an environmental problem that could not be solved by local action alone and, in fact, implicated human environmental activity on a broader scale.

In Minnesota, the threat of acid rain registered on multiple levels. First, Northeastern Minnesota’s biome is particularly susceptible to the effects of acid rain. Furthermore, this large area of the state was sensitive to the effects of acidification both culturally and economically. Symbolically, the Minnesotan identity is closely tied to its label as the “land of 10,000 lakes." This image, however, is one of clean waters and healthy ecosystems. As such, acid rain posed a threat to the state identity. Not only that, but the lakes also serve as important economic and social resources. As one of the largest industries in the state, tourism depends upon the health and wellbeing of the fishing, hunting, and camping environment. It was obvious that the effects of acid rain would not just impact the environment -- it had the potential to threaten Minnesota’s culture, identity, and industry statewide.

Images

Graphic of the Acid Rain Cycle

Graphic of the Acid Rain Cycle

From a 1980 report on acid rain, this graphic is a representation of early understanding of the acid rain cycle. (Emphasis added by authors.) | Creator: GCA Corporation, Technological Division View File Details Page

Modern Graphic of Acid Rain Cycle

Modern Graphic of Acid Rain Cycle

Sulfur emissions are now understood to be integral factors in the formation of acid rain. | Source: http://i-study.co.uk/IB_ES/IB_unit5_pollution_management.html | Creator: I-Study View File Details Page

Effect on Aquatic Species

Effect on Aquatic Species

As a body of water becomes more acidic, the number of species able to survive and thrive decreases. | Source: "Acid Rain in Minnesota" | Creator: Len Nelson View File Details Page

Sensitivity Map

Sensitivity Map

Shaded are the counties in Minnesota that contain sensitive lakes. | Source: "Acid precipitation in Minnesota: report to the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources" | Creator: J. David Thornton; Steven A. Heiskary; Ronald D. Payer; John Matta View File Details Page

Impact of Acid Rain

Impact of Acid Rain

As made obvious by this page from the report compiled by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the effect of acid rain would have an impact on not just the environment, but also the economy. (Emphasis added by authors.) | Source: "Acid precipitation in Minnesota: report to the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources" | Creator: J. David Thornton; Steven A. Heiskary; Ronald D. Payer; John Matta View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Maja Black, Sarah Goodman, and the Minnesota Environments Team., “The Threat,” Minnesota Environments, accessed May 25, 2018, http://mnenvironments.carleton.edu/items/show/12.

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