Acid Rain: Another Alarmist Story by Tim Ball

Some historians hold that history is just one damned thing after another.
Arnold Toynbee, British Historian

I became aware of the political exploitation and bad science behind the acid rain scare quite early. It was a major issue in the rise of extreme environmentalism. Like most of these issues it bears little examination. Even cursory research exposes the lack of evidence behind the claims. Anybody who dared to raise questions was eco-bullied and marginalized: they were paid by corporations, had a right-wing agenda, and didn’t care about the children, the planet or the future. Enviro-hysteria developed and Salem-like-witch hunts were promoted by environmentalists and dutifully reported, unchallenged, by the media.

In the late 1980s I chaired a climate conference at the National Museum in Ottawa. Afterward an Environment Canada (EC) researcher wanted to talk about a problem with the issue of acid rain.

He wouldn’t talk at the museum so we met at the airport coffee shop, like cold war spies. EC directed him to provide research proving that pollution from Midwest US coal burning plants was creating acid rain and killing Maple trees in Quebec to the detriment of maple syrup industry. He had two problems. 1. The research showed no connection between acid rain and a decline in maple syrup yields. 2. Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was publicly saying the acid rain was to blame.

The problem was his research showed the decline in Maple Syrup production was caused by two natural, cyclical, events. One was drought. The other, very early spring warming that triggered leaf production, followed by a leaf destroying “black” frost. The impact is the same, a condition called “dieback”, that is a loss of leaves. Trees have recovery and catch-up mechanisms that drive them to seed production. They grow new leaves and go through a shortened and reduced production cycle, which includes reduced sap flow, hence the reduced maple syrup yields.

The researcher wanted to know what to do. The answer was obvious. Retain your scientific integrity and let someone higher up the bureaucrat ladder make the political decision to shelve the report. Three American and three Canadian investigators later confirmed his findings that acid rain was not the cause of decline in Maple Syrup. His story is only one of many reasons why bureaucrats should not be doing research. Within a few years climate conditions changed again and yields exceeded previous records.

What is Acid Rain?

Most people don’t know that all rain is acid rain. Raindrops are created when water vapor, a gas, condenses onto particles called condensation nuclei (CN) in the atmosphere and form water droplets, a liquid. Clay (Kaolinite) and salt make up most of the CN. The nuclei influences the chemical nature of the liquid water drop created. For example, salt particles change the freezing temperature so the droplet becomes super-cooled and remain liquid below the freezing point.

Water droplets are extremely small. They are visible in groups, because that is what you see when you look at a cloud. It takes an estimated 1 million to form a medium-sized raindrop. All water absorbs CO2 and droplets with a very high ratio of surface area to volume absorb CO2 it a known rate. The chemical formula is CO2 + H2O H2CO3, which results in a weak, approximately 10 percent, carbonic acid, in chemical equilibrium.

So what was the scare of “Acid Rain”? Why was it different from other rain? The key is the CN. If it is a sulfur particle, the water droplet becomes a mild sulfuric acid droplet and that became the Acid Rain of environmentalists focus.

Acid rain occurred in concentrations sufficient to destroy plants in some restricted locations. I lived in Sudbury Ontario for a year, with its smoke stack, identified as the source of 10 percent of North American Acid Rain, and saw the effects. This is a standard technique of alarmists; take a ‘point of impact’ problem and expand it to a global issue. Ironically, after scrubbers were put on the stacks, reports appeared of reduced tree growth downwind because small amounts of sulfur were a fertilizer enhancing growth. Here is what a German scientist wrote in 2008 about what went on.

Forests can be found everywhere on our planet. But only in German (and, to a certain extent, also in Swiss) forests, a special phenomenon occurred about 30 years ago called “Waldsterben” (dying of forests). The starting point were local damages to certain tree species which scientists, journalists and politicians eagerly interpreted as a global threat to all forests. Man-made emissions were seen as the cause of the Waldsterben which was expected to thoroughly deforest the country within a few years. However, none of the apocalyptic prophecies of that time fulfilled. Seen in retrospect, Waldsterben spared the trees. It only seized the minds of the people.

They can appear to justify the point of impact approach, because with today’s technology, it is always possible to detect things everywhere. For example, a few years ago I learned about a quintillionth (1 followed by 18 zeros in the US and Canada or 1 followed by 30 zeros on the UK, France and Germany). I asked a professor of chemistry to explain in simple terms what this means. He said, it is like a tablespoon of a chemical in Lake Superior. Just because you can detect something, doesn’t mean it is a problem. Paracelsus, the 16th century alchemist explained that the toxicity is in the dosage.

For example, from the very first test over 100 years ago, there was a minute quantity of arsenic in Winnipeg’s water supply. The quantity is so low you could never drink enough water for it to become a problem and to my knowledge, the quantity has not increased over the years. But, imagine the reaction a headline, “Cities Water Contains Arsenic” would generate. No doubt, like all such stories, it would contain all the conditional words, like could, maybe, computer model, speculate. They reveal that the headline is, deliberately scary and unjustified. The problem is, and the environmentalists know it, the headline is what people remember. They also know if it is repeated three times, it becomes fact.

Another part of many environmental claims is to identify humans as the source of the problem. For example, chlorine was the supposedly active ingredient in CFCs that was destroying the ozone. The problem is chlorine occurs in the atmosphere with varying strengths naturally. They claimed, incorrectly, that they could distinguish human produced chlorine from the natural chlorine. They did the same with CO2 claiming, again incorrectly, they could identify by isotopic analysis natural CO2 from that produced by humans use of fossil fuels. Acid rain, like that identified as dangerous acid rain from human sources, also occurs naturally, often in large quantities.

Every volcanic eruption, and there are thousands every year, puts sulphur particles into the atmosphere. They create acid rain similar to that formed from sulphur particles from human sources. It is transported throughout the atmosphere and also falls as acid rain. Important in all this is the assumption that whatever humans do is unnatural. As Geothe said, “The unnatural – that too is natural.” Greenpeace, in their book on global warming, state that CO2 is added to the atmosphere naturally and unnaturally. This means what we do is not natural and therefore, by default, we are unnatural. They claim to accept Darwin’s views, but they ignore the contradiction that we are the most successful of the species. Indeed, what Darwin considers evolutionary advance, environmentalists deride and oppose. David Suzuki, a former genetics professor, might see the irony, although I doubt it. He said.

“Economics is a very species – chauvinistic idea. No other species on earth – and there are may be 30 million of them – has had the nerve to put forth a concept called economics, in which one species, us, declares the right to put value on everything else on earth, in the living and non-living world.”

First, he is wrong, because all other species do put a value on everything else, – it is food or it is not food. Second, they are not capable of any other assessment because they haven’t evolved. When they evolve to the point where they can paint a picture or take a photograph of Suzuki, then I might consider his opinion, until then stop forcing your warped views on others, especially children. Especially since it is done with religious-like fervor, but then, religion is another concept no animal has developed.