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Acid Rain

Chemical Changes In Soil

Once precipitation reaches the forest floor, it percolates into the soil. Important chemical changes take place as: (1) microbes and plants selectively absorb, release, and metabolize chemicals; (2) ions are exchanged at the surfaces of particles of clay and organic matter; (3) minerals are made soluble by so-called acid-weathering reactions; and (4) secondary minerals such as certain clays and metal oxides are formed through chemical precipitation of soluble ions of aluminum, iron, and other metals. These various chemical changes can contribute to: soil acidification, the leaching of important chemicals such as calcium and magnesium, and the mobilization of toxic ions of aluminum, especially Al3+. These are all natural, closely linked processes, occurring wherever there is well-established vegetation, and where water inputs by precipitation are greater than evapotranspiration (i.e., evaporation from vegetation and non-living surfaces). A potential influence of acid rain is to increase the rates of some of these processes, such as the leaching of toxic H+ and Al3+ to lakes and other surface waters.

Some of these effects have been examined by experiments in which simulated "rainwater" of various pHs was added to soil contained in plastic tubes. These experiments have shown that very acidic solutions can cause: (1) an acidification of the soil; (2) increased leaching of the so-called "basic cations" Ca, Mg, and K, resulting in nutrient loss, decreased base saturation of cation exchange capacity, and increased vulnerability of soil to acidification; (3) increased solubilization of toxic ions of metals such as aluminum, iron, manganese, lead, and zinc; and (4) saturation of the ability of soil to absorb sulfate, after which sulfate leaches at about the rate of input. The leaching of sulfate has a secondary influence on soil acidification if it is accompanied by the loss of base cations, and it can cause acidifying and toxic effects in surface waters if accompanied by Al3+ and H+.

Soil acidification can occur naturally. This fact can be illustrated by studies of ecological succession on newly exposed parent materials of soil. At Glacier Bay, Alaska, the melting of glaciers exposes a mineral substrate with a pH of about 8.0, with up to 7-10% carbonate minerals. As this material is colonized and modified by vegetation and climate, its acidity increases, reaching about pH 4.8 after 70 years when a conifer forest has established. Accompanying this acidification is a reduction of carbonates to less than 1%, caused by leaching and uptake by plants.

Several studies have attempted to determine whether naturally occurring soil acidification has been intensified as a result of acid rain and associated atmospheric depositions. So far, there is no conclusive evidence that this has occurred on a wide scale. It appears that soil acidification is a potential, longer-term risk associated with acid rain.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: 1,2-dibromoethane to AdrenergicAcid Rain - Atmospheric Deposition, Chemistry Of Precipitation, Spatial Patterns Of Acidic Precipitation, Dry Deposition Of Acidifying Substances