Progress on acid rain is helping fish survive
The Adirondack Council
ELIZABETHTOWN –Progress against acid rain has led to healthier lakes in the Adirondack Park, which in turn is helping to protect fish from climate change, according to a study published in the journal Global Change Biology.
“This is a perfect example of why we can’t go backwards on acid rain and air pollution,” said William C. Janeway, Executive Director of the Adirondack Council, a national leader in the battle against acid rain. “If acid rain makes a comeback during the Trump administration, we will lose this newfound protection and everything will start getting worse again. That would be tragic. The recovery of Adirondack waters and the associated economic benefits have been real. But the recovery isn’t complete.”
President-elect Donald Trump has said he wants to eliminate federal environmental regulations and reduce the size and scope of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Federal regulations administered by the EPA have resulted in significant reductions in the air pollution that causes acid rain.
Over the past 25 years, most Adirondack lakes have improved. Some that were once considered dead are now producing healthy brook trout again. Others need further reductions in upwind emissions, and time, to regain their vitality.
Through this study, scientists have learned that protection from acid rain provides fish and other aquatic life with greater protection against global warming. It all has to do with how much sunlight reaches the lake bottom.
“A lake that is severely damaged by acid rain looks clear as gin,” Janeway explained. “Almost everything in it is dead. This research team found that lakes with clear water heat up faster than healthy lakes.
“Healthy lakes have lots of green organisms and lots of dissolved organic carbon in them,” he said. “The suspended carbon blocks sunlight from reaching the bottom of deeper waters. That helps keep intact a layer of cooler water that fish need to survive.”
Brook trout, for example, decline rapidly in waters that warm to 68 degrees Fahrenheit and above.
“This added layer of protection will be critical in the years ahead, as warming summer temperatures threaten the survival of cold-water species such as brook trout,” said Janeway. “We will be able to keep them healthy longer in the face of rising global temperatures, if we keep acid rain from making a comeback.”
The air pollutants that cause acid rain — sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides — have declined sharply since 1990. These declines were the result of the federal Acid Rain Program and the Cross-State Pollution Rule. Both discourage one state from polluting the air in another state. The Clean Power Plan is aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but would have the side-benefit of further reducing the emissions that cause acid rain and accelerate the recovery of more Adirondack lakes.
More than 80 percent of the acid rain that falls on the Adirondack Park is generated outside of New York State, mainly by coal-fired power plants and fossil-fueled automobiles. Because New York cannot halt Adirondack acid rain on its own, federal rules are needed to protect the park from continued harm.
Acid rain also harms the forests of the Appalachian Mountains, and destroys public buildings, monuments and cemetery markers throughout the eastern United States.
The report was completed by acid rain scientists working in the southwestern Adirondack Park, including Dana Warren, Clifford Kraft, Daniel Josephson and Charles Driscoll, who presented a summary of their finding to colleagues in the Adirondacks earlier in 2016.
The report’s abstract noted:
As lake ecosystems across the eastern United States recover from acid deposition, the stress to the most susceptible populations of native [cold-water] fish appears to be shifting from acidification effects to thermal impacts associated with changing climate.
Based on data from northeastern North America, [they] argue that recovery from acid deposition has the potential to improve the resilience of [cold-water] fish populations in some lakes to impacts of climate change.
This analysis highlights the importance of considering the legacy of past ecosystem impacts and how recovery or persistence of those effects may interact with climate change impacts on biota in the coming decades.
The Adirondack Park is the hardest-hit area of the United States in terms of acid rain. More than 700 lakes and ponds were once considered too acidic to support their native life. The park’s high-elevation spruce and fir forests suffered die-backs as severe as 80 percent on the slopes of some of the park’s tallest mountains.
Acid rain also worsens mercury contamination of the park’s food web. Acid breaks down chemical compounds, turning harmless inorganic mercury (common in most forest soils) into the toxic organic form. Acid rain also harms the growth of hardwood forests, including sugar maples that are prized for furniture, sporting goods, syrup and brilliant autumn foliage.
In addition, acid rain has harmed the Adirondack economy by degrading the health and productivity of commercial forests and native fisheries, while discouraging tourism and outdoor recreation.
The Adirondack Council is an independent, privately funded, not-for-profit organization. The Council’s mission is to ensure the ecological integrity and wild character of the Adirondack Park. The Council envisions an Adirondack Park comprised of large, core Wilderness areas, surrounded by working forests and farms and vibrant local communities.
The Adirondack Council carries out its mission through research, education, advocacy and legal action. Adirondack Council members live in all 50 United States. Learn more at www.adirondackcouncil.org.