Shop Windows to the Universe

Our Glaciers: Then and Now activity kit helps you see the changes taking place in glaciers around the world. See all our activity kits and classroom activities.
Chesapeake Bay (USA) is a site of much scientific study about water quality
Click on image for full size
Courtesy of NOAA

Air Pollution and Water

Have you heard about rivers, lakes, or streams becoming polluted? Sometimes the pollution comes from trash, oil spills, sewage, fertilizers, or chemicals. However, sometimes the source of water pollution is in the air.

Air pollution can make its way into rivers, lakes, or streams. Several different types of air pollutants are able to waterways. Some fall from the sky as dry particles. Other air pollutants are carried to the ground in raindrops, snowflakes, or fog. Some of these pollutants are listed below. They not only harm water, but also the plant and animal life that depend on water to survive.

Nitrogen compounds
Nitrogen is a nutrient that plants need to grow. However, there can be too much of a good thing. Too much nitrogen in a body of water can cause algae to grow very quickly, clogging the waterways, and upsetting the balance of the ecosystem. This is called an algal bloom or “Red Tide.” Algal blooms happen more often now than they did hundreds of years ago. Some algal blooms are toxic. When animals eat the algae they also eat the toxins. Nitrogen compounds in air pollution are partly the cause of algal blooms, and can also contribute to water bodies becoming more acidic.

Sulfur Dioxide and Nitrogen Oxides
When fossil fuels are burned, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are released into the atmosphere. Both of these air pollutants dissolve in water vapor to form acid. The acidic water vapor condenses into clouds and falls eventually as precipitation such as rain or snow. This is known as “acid rain”. It falls to Earth and eventually enters bodies of water making them more acidic. That is a tough environment for some fish and animals, such as frogs, to survive and reproduce within. Acidic waters prevent fish eggs from hatching. In fact, some very acid lakes have no fish at all.

Some types of rocks neutralize acidic water. The acidic water dissolves rocks such as limestone. The limestone is then in the water, and makes the water less acidic. Bodies of water in areas such as the Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada are in more danger because rock is primarily granite, which does not neutralize acid rain.

Mercury
Mercury occurs naturally in the environment but it is also released into the atmosphere by people, mainly from burning waste, and especially from burning fossil fuels such as coal. Mercury can dissolve in water, where bacteria in the water transform it into poisonous methyl mercury. Fish and shellfish absorb methyl mercury into their bodies. When other animals, such as birds or people, eat the fish, the methyl mercury gets into their bodies as well. The United States and other countries test to ensure that the fish sold in stores are safe to eat.

How can people reduce air pollution’s effect on water? Reducing our use of fossil fuels can make the biggest impact. Turn off lights. Walk, ride a bike, or use public transportation. Every little bit done by each person can add up to a noticeable improvement in air pollution.

Last modified March 1, 2006 by Lisa Gardiner.

Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!

Cool It! is the new card game from the Union of Concerned Scientists that teaches kids about the choices we have when it comes to climate change—and how policy and technology decisions made today will matter. Cool It! is available in our online store.

Windows to the Universe Community

News

Opportunities

You might also be interested in:

Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more

Nitric Acid - HNO3

Nitric acid is a very strong acid that can burn your skin. Nitric acid has nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms in it. There is a very tiny bit of nitric acid gas in Earth's atmosphere. Nitric acid is...more

Sulfuric Acid - H2SO4

Sulfuric acid is a very common type of acid. Acid rain has sulfuric acid in it. Acid rain harms plants, fish, and other living things. A type of air pollution causes acid rain. When people burn fossil...more

New Online Report on Massive Jellyfish Swarms Released

Huge swarms of stinging jellyfish and jellyfish-like animals are turning parts of the world's ocean into "jellytoriums" that are sometimes jam-packed with these slimy creatures. Areas that are...more

Rising Temperature in Large Lakes

The Earth's climate is warming. That means that air temperature is rising, oceans are warming and large lakes are warming too. A NASA study from November 2010, looked at the surface temperature trends...more

Rainbows

Rainbows appear in the sky when there is bright sunlight and rain. Sunlight is known as visible or white light and is actually a mixture of colors. Rainbows result from the refraction and reflection of...more

The Four Seasons

The Earth travels around the sun one full time per year. During this year, the seasons change depending on the amount of sunlight reaching the surface and the Earth's tilt as it revolves around the sun....more

Research Aircraft

Scientists sometimes travel in specially outfitted airplanes in order to gather data about atmospheric conditions. These research aircraft have special inlet ports that bring air from the outside into...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA