Acidification of Earth: An assessment across mechanisms and scales

In this review article, anthropogenic activities that cause acidification of Earth’s air, waters, and soils are examined. Although there are many mechanisms of acidification, the focus is on the major ones, including emissions from combustion of fossil fuels and smelting of ores, mining of coal and metal ores, and application of nitrogen fertilizer to soils, by elucidating the underlying biogeochemical reactions as well as assessing the magnitude of the effects. These widespread activities have resulted in (1) increased CO2 concentration in the atmosphere that acidifies the oceans; (2) acidic atmospheric deposition that acidifies soils and bodies of freshwater; (3) acid mine drainage that acidifies bodies of freshwater and groundwaters; and (4) nitrification that acidifies soils. Although natural geochemical reactions of mineral weathering and ion exchange work to buffer acidification, the slow reaction rates or the limited abundance of reactant phases are overwhelmed by the onslaught of anthropogenic acid loading. Relatively recent modifications of resource extraction and usage in some regions of the world have begun to ameliorate local acidification, but expanding use of resources in other regions is causing environmental acidification in previously unnoticed places. World maps of coal consumption, Cu mining and smelting, and N fertilizer application are presented to demonstrate the complex spatial heterogeneity of resource consumption as well as the overlap in acidifying potential derived from distinctly different phenomena. Projected population increase by country over the next 4 decades indicates areas with the highest potential for acidification, so enabling anticipation and planning to offset or mitigate the deleterious environmental effects associated with these global shifts in the consumption of energy, mineral, and food resources.

Rice K. C., & Herman J. S., in press. Acidification of Earth: An assessment across mechanisms and scales. Applied Geochemistry doi:10.1016/j.apgeochem.2011.09.001. Article (subscription required).

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