Acid rain in Big Sur

28 04 2009

Having been in my progress so often misled by taking for granted the results of others, I have determined to write as little as possible but what I can attest by my own experience.” – John Dalton, Independent Scientist (1766-1844)

UPDATE (May 2, 2009): In the past 24 hours it has rained 0.93″ here in Big Sur with a pH of 4.56. I have amended the seasonal data accordingly.

UPDATE 2 (May 5, 2009): An additional 0.08″ was recorded, but the sample was too small to obtain an accurate pH reading. The seasonal data have been amended.

Anyone who thinks acid rain does not occur in pristine, unpolluted environments had better think again. Or better yet, go get some litmus paper and check it out for yourself.

Scientists studying Sudden Oak Death have dismissed acid rain as a relevant factor in oak mortality, pointing out that areas of severe decline are near the coast, upwind of the major sources of pollution, thus rainfall could not be acidic. Here along the coast of California storms blow in from the ocean where there are few sources of manmade pollutants. Rainfall pH, then, is not expected to be any more acidic than about 5.6, which is the theoretical pH of unpolluted rainwater in equilibrium with atmospheric CO2.

Acid precipitation in southeast Alaska

Acid precipitation in southeast Alaska (photo by Lee Klinger)

However, I have learned from past research that rainfall in pristine environments can sometimes be quite acidic[1]. So for the past three years I have been recording rainfall at my home in Big Sur using a Stratus RG202 rain gauge. Readings of rainfall pH have been made with a high-precision Beckman (Model Φ250) pH meter using a standard two-point (4.00 & 7.00) calibration. The rain station is located 1.2 miles from the coast at 36° 16’N; 121° 49’W, and 922’ (281 m) elevation.

Here are the results:

Season length: Dec 17, 2006 (begin readings) – May 4, 2007 (partial season)

Partial season rainfall: 13.98”

Mean volume-weighted pH (± s.d.) of 24 measured events: 4.72 ± 0.16

Season length: Sep 22, 2007 – Apr 23, 2008

Total rainfall: 27.63”

Mean volume-weighted pH (± s.d.) of 24 measured events: 4.92 ± 0.15

Season length: Oct 13, 2008 – Apr. 8, 2009 May 2, 2009 May 5, 2009

Total rainfall: 31.13″ 32.06” 32.14″

Mean volume-weighted pH (± s.d.) of 23 24 measured events: 4.67 ± 0.21 4.66 ± 0.20

For comparison, the plot below shows field pH readings from Big Sur along with times series of lab pH readings from six NADP stations (Tanbark, So CA; Pinnacles, Central CA; Hopland, No CA; Hyslop, OR; Olympic, WA; & Juneau, AK) currently operating along the Pacific coast. None of these stations are truly “coastal” in that they are all 10 miles or more inland. Data were downloaded yesterday from the National Atmospheric Deposition Program website.

Mean volume-weighted pH values of precipitation at six NADP sites and at Big Sur

So what does all this mean?

First, it means that the rainfall here in Big Sur is notably more acidic than would be expected of unpolluted rainwater. Because the pH scale is logarithmic, the average rainfall pH of this past rainy season is about 10 times more acidic than “expected”.

Second, all of the sites shown in the plots above are reporting pH values that are slightly lower (more acidic) than might be expected, except for the Tanbark site, which is in the LA basin and is probably influenced by pollution.

Third, I do not know the kinds of acids in the Big Sur rainwater or their sources. But I do have some ideas, which I will share in later posts.

For now I would like hear from readers about their ideas on what is happening here? Why acid rain in Big Sur? What kinds of acids could be in the rain? Where are they coming from? How long has the rainfall been acidic? How might acid rain be affecting the oak ecosystem?

[1] L.F. Klinger and D.J. Erickson III. 1997. Geophysiological coupling of marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres 102: 25,359-25,370.




3 responses

3 05 2009
salmon girl

This ph rainfall thing is really interesting is anybody doing monitoring up here in Humboldt co? or should we look into setting up a ph study?

Reply – There are NADP sites in Mendocino County (Hopland) and Siskiyou County (Montague), but none in Humboldt County. It would great to set up a pH monitoring station near the coast in Humboldt Co. – Lee

1 06 2009
Oliver Tickell

How about analysing the rainwater samples to determine what ions are present? If we find a lot of sulfate that could indicate a marine source from sulfur compounds volatilising from the ocean surface then oxidising in the atmosphere.

REPLY – That is certainly the next step and if I had an ion chromatograph and enough electricity (living off the grid I can barely keep my computer running) I would be on it. But as suggested by the NADP sulfate levels at other coastal sites there is bound to be some sulfate in the samples and the only way to determine any links with the ocean system is through trace gas emission and isotopic tracer studies. I proposed such an experiment at NCAR several years ago – called it BIOTEST (Biogeochemical Interactions between Ocean and Terrestrial EcosySTems). It would be a fun experiment to do, really looking carefully at the chemical and ecological connections of land and oceans, asking questions like – what is the ecology of a storm?

3 06 2009

The NADP sites do all the analysis for you regarding Sulfur, Nitrates etc… There are sites throughout the USA.
After attending the Acid Rain 2005 meeting in Prague , the one thing I came away with is that acid rain does not know any boundaries and can occur anywhere at anytime. Acid Rain is mainly associated with the northeast because the coal fired power plants contribute emissions downwind to the northeast. The resultant acid rain produced weakens the “immune systems” of our trees by leaching calcium from the trees and soils.
California is no exception, transboundary acid rain is affecting the trees and soils of california as well. The California Air Resources Board has numerous studies over many decades documenting the existence of acid rain and acid fog in California. There are also numerous studies documenting these cumulative effects on trees and plants as well.

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