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Great Minds, Great Lakes


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The Journey of the Great Lakes



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Acid Rain: A shared Problem

When talking about acid rain, the old adage applies--what goes up must come down. This section explores acid rain, an example of a difficult environmental issue facing the United States and Canada. By focusing on this complex environmental concern, the lesson reveals why it is so important for governments to work together and be aware of how their actions affect the quality of life of others.

Acid rain is rain, snow, hail, fog, dust, or soot containing high levels of acid. Pollutants that are transferred from the air into the Lakes are responsible for harming the quality of the water in the Lakes, as well as the health of the plants and animals that call the Great Lakes home. But acid rain isn't just a regional problem; it is a global problem and there is little worldwide agreement on how to tackle it. Neither the United States nor Canada can combat acid rain alone. It is carried across national frontiers and often affects distant places more strongly than where it is produced. Solving the acid rain problem requires and understanding of the consequences of our actions in the United States and Canada, and the necessity of cooperating in the search for a solution.

With the issue of acid rain, attention is drawn to the Great Lakes Basin. This is because many "smokestack" industries are located in a and near the Basin, and many people believe that the pollution from these industries contributes to the acid rain problem in Ontario, eastern Canada and northeastern United States. Many Canadians get upset with the United States because so much of the pollution coming from industry in the Untied States blows with the wind, sometimes ending up in Canada.

There are no simple solutions to this problem. Cost, economics, and available technologies are all issues at stake. Most leaders anticipate that stopping acid rain will be costly. Many dollars will have to be spent to change the way fuels are burned and how other industrial processes are used to make the goods and services on which our society depends. Because so much of the industry is located on the United States side of the Lakes, some Great Lakes states are nervous that they will be responsible for much of the cost.

Long term solutions to the acid rain problem include instituting strict air quality legislation, developing technologies to help fuels burn more cleanly, and filtering gases before they enter the atmosphere. Individuals can contribute to solving the acid rain problem by instituting recycling programs, using public transportation, and turning off appliances to cut down on energy consumption.

About Acid Rain

The majority of acid rain results from fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gases burned in industry, electrical power plants, and motor vehicles. Once in the atmosphere, these pollutants combine with moisture and interact with sunlight to form sulfuric acid and nitric acid. Tall factory smoke stacks discharge pollutants high into the atmosphere where winds carry the acids for hundreds of miles. Eventually the acids fall back to the earth in the form of rain, snow, or dust. Factors influencing how fare acid rain travels include wind speed, wind direction, and cloud chemistry.

The effects of acid rain include:

  • Damage to buildings, monuments, and statues.

  • Destruction of lake and river ecosystems. Fish cannot reproduce and soon die out when acid levels become too high in rivers and lakes. If a lake or river loses its fish population, animals and birds in the area may starve or be forced to move away from the area to look elsewhere for food.

  • High acid levels dissolve metals, such as aluminum, that are present in river and lake beds, and soil and rock aquifers. The metals enter the water and possibly contaminate fish, making them harmful for wildlife and human consumption.

  • Damage to plant life. Acid rain can affect trees and crops by directly attacking their leaves and needles or my soaking into soil, and changing it s chemical balance.

  • Contamination of drinking water. By gradually eating away at metal pipes, acid rain causes metal to enter the drinking water supplies. Some studies have linked acid rain to increased infant mortality rates and lung dysfunction.


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