ByMadeleine Somerville

Jul 9, 2015

If you grew up in the eighties there are some words that can probably elicit an almost physical reaction from you even today. Mullets. Acid wash. Garbage Pail Kids. Pogs! And…acid rain? You guys remember acid rain, right?

Early 80's
Image courtesy of A.Currell.

No, no, not purple rain – that’s Prince. ACID rain. Remember? I recall learning about this as a kid, and took it quite literally, as kids are prone to do, imagining falling raindrops burning holes right through my skin. It was Environmental concern #1 for a while, and it was terrifying, and then it just sort of…disappeared.

I found myself in my backyard the other day taking laundry in off the line as clouds gathered above me, and as the first drops hit my skin, that visceral fear suddenly came flooding back to me and I thought to myself, “What the hell ever happened to acid rain, anyway?”

Did we forget about it? Lose interest? Did we solve it?

Well, as it turns out, we did solve it! Well, sort of.

Acid rain was a term coined to describe the effect of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides joining together to form acidic compounds. These components are released by the burning of fossil fuels, and after getting absorbed into the atmosphere and reacting with water, these acidic compounds fell back to the earth as snow, sleet, and yes, acid rain.

The effects were alarming – the increased acidity of rainfall tainted lakes and waterways, poisoned fish populations, imbalanced soil composition and even threatened some species of trees (not to mention terrifying a skinny fourth-grader in suburban Toronto.)

So, what happened? Why did acid rain just suddenly drop off the radar?

Well, friends, technology, legislation and good old fashion resolve happened. “….the Clean Air Act … required that power plants make significant cuts on sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emissions, which they did by installing “scrubbers” in their smokestacks and switching to low-sulfur coal. Cap-and-trade programs—like the ones that we may soon institute for carbon—came online in 1995 for sulfur dioxide and 2003 for nitrogen oxides. Vehicles, which emit large amounts of nitrogen oxides, were also becoming cleaner thanks to the introduction of catalytic converters in the mid-1970s.”

Image courtesy of Thomas8047.
Image courtesy of Thomas8047.

An environmental problem was identified, advertised and publicly agonized over until legislation finally caught up with conscious.  The results speak for themselves. Sulfur dioxides fell from 26 million tons in 1980, to less than half that – 11.4 million tons- by 2008. Nitrogen oxides decreased too, from around 27 million tons in 1980 to just 16.3 million tons in 2008.

So the next time you feel as though our environmental problems are simply too big — plastic islands the size of Texas! GMO’s! Grown adults inexplicably using wet wipes in the bathroom! — remember that we stopped ACID RAIN. Acid rain! The most terryfing thing to happen in the eighties other than R.L.Stine!

And, remember, we did it before the internet.

Don’t tell me we can’t fix what’s going on now!

Feature image courtesy of Keith Ewing


By Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.