Acid Rain Effects on Plants & Animals

By Atanacia Franco; Updated April 24, 2017
Acid rain is a growing threat to the environment.

Acid rain is defined as any amount of precipitation that has some level of toxic metals or chemicals. Even though acid rain can be caused by volcano gas, acid rain is also caused by the release of sulfur and nitrogen dioxides from fossil fuel production. When these particles are released into the air, they can accumulate in humid areas and be incorporated into the precipitation cycle. Acid rain is a growing problem in America and Europe, causing government agencies to instill laws and programs to counteract the negative effects of acid rain.

Reduced pH Level in Water

Acid rain can make the water in lakes and streams more acidic and discharge toxic amounts of aluminum into a water system. Many aquatic animals cannot thrive in a low pH environment. The death of aquatic animals results in other animals within the habitat to have a lack of food, thus throwing the ecosystem out of balance.

Damage to Forests and Plants

Acid rain damages the leaves of trees and plants, thus limiting their growth and exposing them to the metals in the air from the toxic rain. Depending on the severity of the damage, the vegetation can be stunted in its growth or the foliage can be stripped away. The damage can also destroy a plant's ability to handle cold or disease.

Poisoning of the Soil

When acid rain absorbs into the ground, the soil becomes more acidic, which dissolves helpful minerals in the soil. Acid rain also releases toxic substances, such as aluminum, into the soil and poisons the vegetation. The effect of this damage is reduced under certain conditions, such as having a thick layer of soil and having certain types of bedrock under the soil to absorb the rain.

Damage to the Bodily Functions

When fish are exposed to acid rain, the disturbed levels of minerals in fish will affect their reproductive system and the females will not release eggs. When certain fish are in water with a very acidic pH level, the mucus on their gills will become very sticky and will eventually stick together, causing them to be unable to receive oxygen from the water.

Case Study

A study was done in the Netherlands about the exact effects of acid rain on a given habitat. They noticed that acid rain leached calcium from the soil, which was the primary source of calcium for snails in that environment. The snails soon died off, which was the primary source of calcium for birds in that habitat. The birds had to look to other sources for their calcium, such as insects. The birds were not able to receive a significant amount of calcium and began to lay defective eggs.

About the Author

Atanacia Franco is a graduate of Brigham Young University's Middle Eastern studies/Arabic program and The George Washington University's MPA program. She has also studied Arabic at the University of Jordan. She has published on a variety of topics ranging from the American Southwest to Egypt's tourism.