Acidic deposition, or "acid rain," describes any form of precipitation, including rain, snow, and fog, with a pH of 5.5 or below (Note: pH values below 7 are acidic; vinegar has a pH of 3). It often results when the acidity of normal precipitation is increased by sulfates and nitrates that are emitted into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. This form of airborne contamination is considered harmful, both directly and indirectly, to a host of plant and animal species.
Although acid rain can fall virtually anywhere, ecological damages in environmentally sensitive areas downwind of industrial and urban emissions are a major concern. This includes areas that have a reduced capacity to neutralize acid inputs because of low alkalinity soils and areas that contain species with a low tolerance to acid conditions. To determine the distribution of acidic deposition and evaluate its biological effects, research and monitoring are being conducted by the federal government with support from states, universities, and private industry.
The national extent of the acid rain problem has been estimated by sampling water from 3,000 lakes and 500 streams (Irving 1991), representing more than 28,000 lakes and 56,000 stream reaches with a total of 200,000 km (125,000 mi). Some particularly sensitive areas, such as the Adirondack Mountain region, have been more intensively sampled and the biota examined in detail for effects from acidity.
To identify trends in aquatic ecosystems, present and historical survey data on water chemistry and associated biota are compared. In lakes, the chemical and biological history and pH trends may be inferred or reconstructed in some cases by examining assemblages of fossil diatoms and aquatic invertebrates in the sediment layers. In terrestrial ecosystems, vegetation damage is surveyed and effects of acidic deposition to plants and animals are determined from laboratory and field exposure experiments. Natural variation in populations and the complex interactions between acidity and other ecosystem components make it difficult to extend many of the research findings to populations or communities. Acidity can also modify ecosystem processes such as decomposition and the flow of nutrients. Therefore, models are often used to predict such effects by combining information on individual species' effects, population distributions, and the patterns and amounts of acidic deposition.
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