October 14 – Acid Trip

Today’s factismal: Acid rain has about the same pH level as wine or beer.

In the late 1800s, the fogs of London were notorious not just for their thickness (“pea soup” being about the kindest appellation that they were given) but also for their effect. Going out in a London fog would leave you with a raspy voice, itchy eyes, and a dry, chapped skin. How could a little fog do so much damage? It was because at that time, London was powered almost exclusively by high-sulfur coal. When the sulfur from the coal combined with the water in the fog, it created a weak sulfuric acid solution (about as acidic as wine or beer); walking in the fog was literally like walking in acid!

How acid rain forms (Image courtesy EPA)

How acid rain forms
(Image courtesy EPA)

The fogs of London are now nothing but a memory, thanks to improved power generation methods, but acid rain is still with us. There are many places around the world (e.g., China, India) where it is cheaper and easier to burn high sulfur coal and oil to generate energy, which means that there is still plenty of sulfuric acid being formed. And, because the atmosphere doesn’t stop at a country’s borders, the pollution that one nation creates can easily affect other nations across the globe. However, quantifying that damage can be frustratingly difficult.

This fountain has been damaged by acid rain (My camera)

This fountain has been damaged by acid rain
(My camera)

And that’s where you come in. A group of scientists in Sydney (Utah) are looking for volunteers across the globe to go out and look at old gravestones in order to measure the effects of acid rain. The sulfuric acid created by sulfur pollution will slowly eat away at a marble gravestone; by measuring the amount of damage that’s been done, they can tell how much sulfur pollution the area has had. If you’d like to help, then head over to:
http://www.earthscienceeducation.org/Dj-AnthrosphereUT/EarthTrek%20-%20Gravestone%20Project.htm

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