Maples, Moose, Mussels and Acid Rain
Written by Laura Michelle Burns
When I was a college student, acid rain was a buzzword for pollution that fell from the sky. It was a topic we briefly touched on in Ecology class, accompanied by a warning — if things didn’t change in our environment, the US would soon experience the adverse effects of acid rain. To be honest, I didn’t really take it all that seriously until I visited India and we were told to take shelter indoors as soon as it started raining. We could not eat the fruit because rain water would have touched it. While I am very grateful the pollution in the US has not yet reached such a point of caution, we still have much to worry about.
Acid rain is a current reality in the Unites States. According to the EPA:
Acid rain, snow, hail, fog, dust, or soot containing high levels of acid. Pollutants that are transferred from the air into the Great 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.
Emissions from fossil fuels that release sulfur dioxide (SO2) and Nitrogen Oxide (NO) combine with the water vapors in the air and change the pH, ultimately resulting in acid rain. Acid rain will originate in urban areas where pollution is concentrated, but as the wind blows, rain travels, and no one is left untouched. Often, we tend to think of humans as being impacted, but we are not the only creatures living on this earth that feels the effects.
Around the Great Lakes, we see how pollution changes the pH down deep in the soil. Sugar Maples require soil that is calcium poor and the acidification that results from the rain makes it difficult for these beautiful trees to thrive. In fact, in the past four decades, we’ve seen a decline in the Sugar Maple population.
Scientists at the University of Michigan have determined that the excess nitrogen from the acid rain slows the decomposition of the leaves on the forest floor. Because of the actual physical barrier these leaves pose, the seeds that fall from the trees aren’t able to root easily and the ones that do, have to fight even harder to reach the sunlight. Currently, students and professors at the University of Michigan are studying trees and gathering data to increase potential future growth.
The Minnesotan moose population has also declined in the last 40 years. A surprising climate change effect has brought an increase in parasitic infections to the moose population. The rise in these infections correlates directly to the rise in our temperatures. As climate change brings an average rise in the winter temperatures by 12 degrees and an average of 4 degrees in the summers, these pathogens are given the advantage.
Analysis of moose fecal matter, shows they are adequately nourished throughout the winter, but the summer leaves them with distinct deficiencies in copper and selenium, indicative of malnutrition. This leads researchers to equate the changes in the bottom of the plant food chain to changes in climate.
Merely a small link above the bottom of the food chain, sits the zebra mussel. Because of the increase in temperature, the invasive zebra mussel population has increased. The zebra mussel increase brings an increase in the demand for food. These mussels devour the phytoplankton in the Great Lakes, leaving little for the fish populations. In turn, the mussels then specifically filter out the blue-green algae and leave behind nutrients that encourage the growth of the algae that choke the Great Lakes of nutrients.
Climate Change Choice
Acid rain is not just a buzzword, it’s pollution reality. Our air has changed the pH in the water vapor. As humans, we have the choice to make changes. We can choose to strengthen our clean air laws and regulations and not deny the facts. We can choose to develop and advocate for safer energy sources. We must protect our plants and animals from environmental destruction. And it’s not fair to our children and our children’s children to let climate change rain on their parade.
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