On a family vacation when I was about eight years old, I met a curiously unforgettable old guy. He was a charming, absolutely dead-on caricature of what an old-line nature lover should look like: Khaki shorts, field glasses, hiking boots and walking stick. His name was Daniel Smiley. The Smiley family, from 1869 to the present, has run the Mohonk Mountain House, a gorgeous throwback of a resort hotel that I can no longer afford to visit about 90 miles north of New York City.
The place is legendary. It served as the backdrop for a hilarious 1994 movie, The Road to Wellville, and is surrounded by thousands of acres of trails and forests. Dan Smiley was a legend, too. His love of nature, combined with sublime geekdom, led him to document every measurable fact of nature on the Mohonk Preserve: pH readings for Mohonk Lake, water and air temperature, and seasonal changes -- the science of phenology. Smiley’s data on the arrival of fall and spring provided a useful baseline of info that no one else was paying attention to at the time. But his readings of the pH level -- the acidity in the waters of Mohonk Lake -- were the only info available on the then-unknown phenomenon called acid rain.
What Smiley began studying in 1931 began to catch the public eye in the 1970s. The phrase “acid rain” was coined in 1972, as high acidity levels were linked to ecological damage in lakes, streams, and forests. Increasing acidity was killing fish eggs and impacting the entire forest chain of life from microbes to trees. Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Eastern Canada and the Northeast U.S. were particularly hard-hit. Pioneering research was done in places like the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire. The images of acid rain damage were dire: About half the trees in Germany’s Black Forest were killed. Reports of similar tolls started coming in from the Canadian Maritimes, the Adirondack Mountains of New York, and as far south as the Smokies. Some lakes were virtually sterilized by acidic waters, and more dire discoveries revealed that acidifying soils leached aluminum and other toxins into waterways.
Soon after, came the first steps in a long road toward recovery. In 1979, the U.N. ushered in a treaty on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution that set some of the first limits on damaging emissions blown across national borders. The treaty now has 51 members that include the U.S., Canada, several former Soviet Republics, and most of the nations of Europe.
In the U.S., the Clean Air Act was amended in 1990, and offered much stronger defense against acid rain damage. Coal-burning power plants were required to install scrubbers and reduce both sulfur and nitrogen emissions. And a scheme for “trading acid rain emissions credits offered financial incentives for polluters that lowered their emissions rates.
There’s now evidence that it’s paying off. Researchers at Rensselaer Tech in upstate New York have observed a return of life to some lakes in the Adirondacks.
The news is not so good in other parts of the world. Eastern Europe is still reeling from acid rain damage -- notably Poland, which gets a whopping 96% of its electricity from coal, still deals with serious problems from acid rain. Poland and other European Union nations like the U.K. and Romania will have to shut down their dirtiest coal-fired power plants by 2015 due to tough new European Union rules.
Daunted only by the economic slowdown, China still continues to pile on new coal plants. A 2006 report showed more than one-third of the nation is coping with serious impacts from acid rain. They’re also sharing with their downwind neighbors: South Korea’s Environment Ministry is coping with acid rain as well, and estimated that more than a third of it is blown in from China. China is not a signer of the Transboundary Air Pollution treaty.
Dan Smiley died in 1989, meaning he lived long enough to see the toll taken by acid rain, but not long enough to see the hopeful signs of a turnaround. Despite the continuing bad news from elsewhere, he’d be pleased to see it.
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Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)