Thursday, October 22, 2020

Fossil fuels

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Pollution, the presence of harmful substances called pollutants in the environment, is introduced into the environment through the activities of man. It is especially harmful in heavily populated areas and/or technologically advanced places. This is so because one of the main causes of pollution is due to the burning of fossil fuels-- coal, oil, etc. Lakes, rivers, and oceans are polluted with factory wastes, chemical residues, untreated sewage, and garbage. The air of most cities is burdened with exhaust fumes from cars, coal and fuel smoke, and chemicals from factories. The land itself is polluted with litter, chemicals, and radioactive wastes.

The burning of fossil fuels is a dirty process. When fossil fuels like coal burn, harmful chemicals like sulfur are released, thus producing dangerous oxides. Because the air is 80% nitrogen, nitrogen is combusted when fuel is burned, releasing nitrous oxides at high temperatures as a result. Furthermore, because fossil fuels are composed of carbon, they tend to produce carbon dioxide when burned. As a result, the sulfur and nitrous oxides produce sulfuric acid and nitric acid, leading to acid rain. The carbon dioxide produced from the burning of fossil fuels traps heat in the atmosphere, thus contributing to the global warming of the earth (Hart 14). These two effects of fossil fuel burning, acid rain and global warming, are two of the main causes of the pollution problem in the world today.

Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels are the primary source of energy today. In the past century, technology has advanced so much that people have come to depend on it more and more for everyday purposes. For example, as cars became more dependable and plentiful, they became cheaper and more useful to people. As a result, people came to depend more on cars, which are run by burning fossil fuels. In fact, the United States uses up about 17 million barrels of oil every day. This country is 5% of the worlds population but uses up 6% of the worlds energy. Moreover, the United States emits almost twice as much carbon dioxide (from burning fossil fuels) than any other country in the world. Over 0% of the energy used in the United States comes from the burning of fossil fuels (Huang 1). Other than the obvious danger of completely using up a resource, there is also the danger of acid rain and global warming.

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Acid Rain

Acid rain has been around since the Industrial Revolution, when the burning of fossil fuels tripled. As stated before, acid rain is the result of the burning of coal and oil, which leads to the release of sulfur and nitrogen, which combine with oxygen to form sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, respectively. As these potentially harmful chemical compounds enter the atmosphere, they transform into sulfuric and nitric acids, which fall back to earth as acid rain, which has a pH lower than 5.6 (rain without sulfuric or nitric acids have a pH of 5.6). In some conditions, sulfuric and nitric acids can make rain as acidic as vinegar or even battery acid.

Acid rain has damaged huge areas of forest by causing the crowns of trees and leaves to drop prematurely. It even damages the health of trees by taking away vital nutrients in the soil. This is done when acid rain lowers the pH of the soil, thus changing the solubility of the soils minerals (which the trees need). As the minerals are washed out of the soil, other minerals (like aluminum) increase in solubility, thus becoming toxic (Volk 14). Moreover, acid rain has the potential to reach areas of forest that are far from polluting factories. In Europe, for example, over 475,000 square kilometers of forest (an area larger than California) has been damaged because of acid rain. In the eastern part of the United States, acid rain has reduced the growth rates and increased the mortality rates of red spruce forests (Koike, Ohta, and Sanada 1).

Furthermore, acid rain has very harmful effect on aquatic organisms. As acidic water dissolves heavy metals (like aluminum), it reduces the intake of oxygen by fish. Acid water may also change water chemistry, reducing the reproduction rate of fish. In some regions, acid rain has lowered the pH of the aquatic environment to the point that it cannot even support life.

Global Warming

The ten of the warmest years on record have happened in the past fifteen years. Furthermore, the 10s have been the warmest decade on record by almost 0. degrees Fahrenheit. It may have been argued in the past that such warming trends are a natural phenomena, but recent scientific studies have proven that it is in fact the fault of man, not the fault of nature, that is bringing about this severe climate change (Huang 1).

Complex interactions in the atmosphere, the oceans, the land masses, and living organisms affect the Earths climate. It is warmed by the suns energy and radiates this heat back into space. However, the Earths atmosphere has gases like carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, and water vapor that trap the right amount of heat in. As stated, carbon dioxide already exists in the atmosphere, it was not until the Industrial Revolution that atmospheric concentration levels of carbon dioxide dramatically increased (because of the burning of fossil fuels to run cars, factories, etc.). As a result, more heat has been trapped than before the Industrial Revolution, causing the global temperature to dramatically rise. In fact about 80% of the greenhouse gas levels are due to fossil fuel burning (Huang). It is predicted that the planet will warm over the next century at a higher rate than ever before.

With such high levels come changes in cloud patterns, winds, ocean currents, glaciation, and precipitation. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are expected to double as early as 050. Future impacts and dangers of global warming include damage to human health, dislocation of agriculture, expansion of deserts, melting of polar ice caps, more frequent extreme weather events, and severe stress on natural habitats (Roslyakov and Beijing 14). In fact, such dangers have already started to occur. Sea levels have risen because of melting polar ice caps. Droughts are plaguing some agricultural areas, while extensive floods curse other parts of the world.


Although people have become more and more aware that the effects of pollution on the resources of the earth may lead to a biosphere that may no longer be fit to support life, there are still no effective worldwide controls. From an economic point of view, this largely due to the fact that developing countries chief concerns are to provide basic needs (food, shelter, employment, etc.). Furthermore, industries in these countries are afraid that the costs of pollution control might make it difficult to compete in trade with rival nations whose pollution controls are less costly (Huang 1).

However, there is still an agreement by experts that effective pollution restrictions are needed at local, national, and worldwide levels. In the United States, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency, founded in 170, helps regulate problems of pollution. In addition, other forms of harnessing energy are being proposed everyday (solar power, wind power, hydroelectricity, etc). However, the reliability of solar and wind power are questionable, as there are obviously some regions in the world that lack proper amounts of sun or wind. Also, experts are starting to believe that damming up bodies of water for hydroelectricity is harmful to its immediate surroundings. If we were to rely more on water as a source of energy instead of fossil fuels, the environment could still suffer. The best solution is to not go overboard with any rescue that has been given to us. As Confucius said, "To go beyond is as wrong as falling short."

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