This comprehensive review, the first on this topic to date, found the mining and burning of coal, the mining and smelting of metal ores, and the use of nitrogen fertilizer are the major causes of chemical oxidation processes that generate acid in the Earth-surface environment.
These widespread activities have increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, increasing the acidity of oceans; produced acid rain that has increased the acidity of freshwater bodies and soils; produced drainage from mines that has increased the acidity of freshwater streams and groundwater; and added nitrogen to crop lands that has increased the acidity of soils.
Previous studies have linked increased acidity in oceans to damage to ocean food webs, while increased acidity in soils has the potential to affect their ability to sustain crop growth.
In short, global acidification is one more threat to global food security, which is already under grave threat by climate change, our idiotic biofuels policies, population growth and demographic changes (see Oxfam Predicts Climate Change will Help Double Food Prices by 2030: “We Are Turning Abundance into Scarcity”).
Here’s more background on the study and its findings:
“We believe that this study is the first attempt to assess all of the major human activities that are making Earth more acidic,” said USGS scientist Karen Rice, who led the study. “We hope others will use this as a starting point for making scientific and management progress to preserve the atmosphere, waters, and soils that support human life.”
… “The low pH levels of streams in coal regions of the eastern United States were a major environmental concern 50 years ago,” said University of Virginia geochemist Janet Herman. “Changes in mining practices as well as shifting location of production brought about improvements in water quality in Appalachia. In contrast, exploitation of coal has grown in China where the same environmental protections are not in place.”
To examine the global impact of acidification, the researchers developed a series of world maps to show current coal use, nutrient consumption, and copper production and smelting by country. By combining this information with the anticipated population growth through 2050 and the impact of changing technology, regulations and other factors, the researchers address shifting trends in acidification.
“Looking at these maps can help identify where the current hotspots are for producing acidity,” said Rice. “The population increase map can help guide policymakers on possible future trends and areas to watch for the development of new hotspots.”
For example, the populations of some countries in Africa are projected to increase in the near future. To support the growing populations, these countries likely will be forced to apply more nitrogen fertilizer to their crops than they currently use, increasing the acidification of soils and freshwater resources in a region that had not previously been affected.
To look at the impact of the acid producing activities, the researchers characterized the scale of environmental damage from major activities and their components as local, regional, global, or some combination of the three. Generating power by burning coal, for instance, can have local, regional and global impacts. Locally, it can cause acid mine drainage where the coal is mined; regionally, burning it can cause acid rain; globally, the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases the acidity of the ocean.
The full study in the journal Applied Geochemistry, “Acidification of Earth: An Assessment across Mechanisms and Scales,” is available online. It concludes:
… currently low-consuming regions in Africaand the Middle East are predicted to experience a tremendous population growth with its attendant demand for energy, mineral, andfood resources. It may be that regions of Earth not currently burdened with environmental acidiﬁcation soon will be contributing signiﬁcantly to Earth’s acid load. Now might be the time of opportunity to anticipate the coming shifts in population and resource consumption and plan for amelioration of acidifying processes from the outset.
That would be the understatement of the year.
The fact is ocean acidification by itself ought to be reason enough to act now (see Geological Society: Acidifying oceans spell marine biological meltdown “by end of century”). But the disinformers, delayers, inactivists, and smoke-detector-battery-removers currently have the upper hand.
So we will get to see what happens when you acidify everything. What a long, strange trip it’s going to be.
Image via Tadbot