Friday, November 30, 2007

Is Acid Rain Killing Off Wood Thrushes?

A study from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has named acid rain as the cause of the declining population of Wood Thrushes. This bird breeds in eastern United States and southeastern Canada and migrates to Mexico and Panama for the winter. The Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), completed as a cooperative effort by both U.S. and Canadian wildlife agencies, claims that the Wood Thrush is just one of many migratory birds whose population has steadily been declining at a rate of about 2 percent per year from 1966 to 2000. Cornell researchers compiled data from the BBS, government studies on acid rain and from Cornell’s own lab study on forest fragmentation to perform a statistical analysis and came to the conclusion that an increase in acid rain might discourage Wood Thrush breeding.

The term acid rain was coined in 1952 by British chemist Robert Smith but acid rain did not become public knowledge until the 80s when the media reported its negative effects on the environment. Soon thereafter young Al Gore produced a documentary called “An Inconvenient Rain” but the film received little recognition. (Kidding) Acid rain results when fossil fuel combustion byproducts, sulfur and nitrogen, join forces with water in the atmosphere. The result of this diabolical duo is known as acid rain. Most of this is allegedly created by Midwestern industry and blown by wind to the east coast. The researchers acknowledge that the Clean Air Act has indeed helped to reduce the amount of acid rain but claim that there are still great amounts falling in the eastern U.S. where some bird populations continue to decline. Most research has focused on acid rain’s effects on habitat loss but this study focuses primarily on its other effects such as calcium depletion in soil. Acid rain causes calcium to leach form the soil which harms the calcium rich food that the Thrush feeds on such snail shells, isopods such as pill bugs, millipedes, and earthworms. Without the necessary calcium a Thrush will produce thin and brittle eggs which might not survive the incubation process. If baby birds do emerge then the Thrush will have a very difficult time locating calcium rich food for her offspring.

It seems that economic efficiency is the only realistic way to examine the apparent Wood Thrush dilemma. Our economy would certainly suffer from greater regulation of the Midwestern power plants in an attempt to save the Wood Thrush and other affected species. If action were taken and power plants and other polluting industries were more strictly regulated throughout the Midwest and eastern parts of the county then it seems likely that the costs incurred from lower outputs/less polluting outputs would get passed on to the consumer. If prices were pushed too high we certainly wouldn’t have achieved efficiency. It does seem unlikely that strenuous pollution legislation will be passed when considering the benefit to millions of people provided with power and other goods produced by polluting industries. Could it be that the market has already determined the efficient amount of acid rain causing pollutants? I would tend to think so considering the millions of Midwesterners (and probably Easterners) provided with power at a reasonable price at the cost of some amount of calcium in northeastern soils.

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