Car fumes raise spectre of 1980s revival nobody wants...acid rain

A A A

Thirty years ago it was one of the great environmental issues, along with the hole in the ozone layer and CFC chemicals. Now acid rain may be making a comeback – but this time, there's a change in the chemicals responsible.

Nitrogen emissions from motor vehicles and agricultural fertilisers, are combining with rain to produce nitric acid, and are starting to replace the sulphuric acid resulting from power-station emissions as a major source of the environmental scourge of the 1970s and 1980s, according to American experts.

The result is a renewed and serious environmental risk for forests, rivers and wildlife, as nitric acid rain can – just like its sulphuric equivalent – kill plants, fish and insects by leaching important plant nutrients such potassium, calcium and magnesium from the soil. At the same time, it can help to liberate potentially toxic minerals such as aluminium, which can flow off into watercourses. The concern is surfacing in the US, where several scientists have voiced their worries in the current issue of the journal Scientific American.

But the problem exists in Britain and Europe too, especially in Scandinavia, which, because of prevailing westerly winds, receives much of the UK's air pollution. "The issue hasn't gone away," said Ed Dearnley, policy officer for air quality at the charity Environmental Protection UK.

In fact, many EU member states are not on course to meet new limits on nitrogen air pollution which come into force at the end of this year, under the 1999 Gothenburg Protocol, which attempts to do for air pollution what the 1997 Kyoto Protocol attempted to do for climate change: solve the problem by reducing emissions.

The UK is unlikely to meet its limits for NOx (oxides of nitrogen) under the EU National Emission Ceilings Directive, although by a smaller margin than many other countries. Britain expects to overshoot its NOx ceilings by less than 5 per cent, whereas France and Spain look like exceeding theirs by about 30 per cent.

In the US, although nitrogen pollution has been reduced, it has not gone down as much as sulphur pollution. Sulphur dioxide emissions decreased by almost 70 per cent from 1990 to 2008, but emissions of NOx went down only 35 per cent during the same period. Scientists "have grown increasingly aware of the consequences of the remaining nitric acid deposition", according to Professor William Schlesinger, president of the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York.

Professor Schlesinger said it is clear that humans are adding nitrogen to the Earth's surface, and although researchers do not know yet where it all goes, "we do know that increasing concentrations of nitrogen in unexpected places will cause significant environmental damage that we will all learn to regret".

According to Scientific American, the Professor thinks that national arguments over climate change have allowed the US to ignore the nitrogen problem, which he predicts will be the next big environmental issue.

Atmospheric nitrogen is not only responsible for acid rain; when it falls to earth it also causes eutrophication, an excess of nutrients which can lead to algal blooms on lakes and can disrupt plant diversity by letting a very few plant species outcompete almost everything else.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own