University of Minnesota Alumni Association

History

Unpopular Science: Acid Rain

U researcher Eville Gorham linked acid rain to the burning of fossil fuels in the 1950s, but the U.S. wouldn’t regulate emissions until three decades later.

Eville Gorham
CC BY-SA 4.0

Eville Gorham retired in 1998—after 36 years of teaching at the University of Minnesota—as a Regents Professor, a founding member of the U’s College of Biological Sciences, and one of the nation’s most distinguished scholars of water ecology.

“I taught limnology and wetland ecology and one of my favorites, Biology and the Fate of Man, which was one of the earliest environmental courses at the College of Biological Sciences and quite controversial in its day,” said the 93-year-old researcher by phone from his St. Paul home.

Back when Gorham arrived at the U in 1962, as a young scholar educated in London, his research up to that point was centered on a thing that didn’t yet have a name. The concept of acid rain—rainfall made acidic by sulfur dioxide and other compounds from fossil-fuel-burning power plants and vehicles—was still as unknown as Love Canal, Three Mile Island, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Yet, Gorham was onto something big. His groundbreaking research would figure prominently in public debates during the 1970s and ’80s over where acid rain came from and whether it could be mitigated, which ultimately led to the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, signed by President George H.W. Bush. Gorham’s discoveries earned him a nickname: Rain Man.

Born in Nova Scotia, Gorham began his career in science as a student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in zoology after World War II. Then he was off to London, where he earned a doctorate in botany from University College London in 1951. Postgraduate research studies in Sweden piqued his interest in water chemistry and led him to the Lake District of northwest England, where he began his exploration of acid rain.

Working with the Freshwater Biological Association, Gorham thought he would study the chemistry of rain compared to bog water. What he discovered was that rainwater blown into the region from the Irish Sea was full of sea salt, while rainwater huffed into the area from nearby Lancaster and Northumberland was loaded with sulfuric acid. 

The connection between the belching smokestacks of industrial England and what was happening with the rain filtering through the region’s ecology seems obvious now. But that’s only because of Gorham’s findings.

At the time, even he was uncertain about the greater meaning of his research. “I thought it was very interesting and I published a whole bunch of papers on [the acidification of rain],” Gorham told an oral historian, but none of it “made the slightest ripple in the field.”

A 1982 article in the Canada-United States Law Journal put it this way: “By the early 1960s, Gorham had laid much of the foundation of our present understanding of the sources . . . and consequences of acid precipitation. But his work . . . was greeted by a thundering silence from both the scientific community and the public.” This silence “delayed by at least another 10 years the birth of scientific and public awareness of the acid-precipitation problem.”

Meanwhile, the ever-curious researcher was about to embark on what would become another landmark discovery. A friend of Gorham’s, a medical officer in the Lake District, was concerned that radiation from an energy plant might be contaminating the water.

The friend had been reassured by the British Atomic Energy Authority, but when a fire struck the plant in 1957, those suasions felt awfully shaky. Gorham examined water samples from local reservoirs but found little radioactivity. Based on his past bog research, it dawned on Gorham that the sphagnum moss on local hillsides would have captured radioactivity more efficiently than the water he was testing. He was soon carting shovels full of moss back to the laboratory and burning the samples. The Geiger counters went crazy when he tested their residue.

Soon after testing the moss, he was browsing through a Norwegian government report that said the bones of reindeer in Norway contained more radioactive isotopes than the bones of local sheep. It immediately occurred to Gorham why: Reindeer dieted on lichens which, like moss in the Lake District, were likely to be high in radioactive material. As a consequence, people like the Lapps (now called the Sami) of Norway, who ate reindeer meat, would probably be feasting on radioactive isotopes, too.

Gorham wrote papers on his discoveries. A few years later, he read in a London newspaper that a U.S. government committee was vetting plans to build a harbor in Alaska for nuclear submarines; the committee had found that fallout could enter local food chains. Gorham reached out to the committee. “I asked the chairman, ‘I understand you have some research on fallout in northern food chains. Could you tell me what data you’ve collected?’ The man said, ‘We’re relying on the work of a fellow named Eville Gorham.’”

By this time, Gorham was ensconced in the U’s Botany Department (which would join the College of Biological Sciences in 1965), teaching classes and researching water ecology in Minnesota’s peatlands. For all his interest in subjects that verged on environmental science, Gorham still considered himself a pure research scientist and sniffed at the traditions of applied science, with its focus on practicality.

One decision in particular helped turn him into an environmentalist. He joined a seminar of U faculty who gathered weekly to discuss Rachel Carson’s recently published book, Silent Spring. “It suddenly became borne in on me that I’d been studying problems of practical significance all this time just because I thought they were interesting problems, not because I thought they were practical,” Gorham recalls. “Suddenly, I thought, Rachel Carson is out there telling people the real science behind all of this. Maybe I should be out there talking about the things that I know about.”

Gorham soon had the opportunity to do just that. A colleague asked Gorham to speak on his behalf before the Minnesota Legislature on the effects of the insecticide DDT on birds, which were cataloged in Silent Spring. The lawmakers, who had heard little but praise for the chemical until then, were astounded to discover another side to the story. DDT would become a flashpoint for environmentalists; the Environmental Defense Fund was founded with the goal of banning it. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency held hearings in the early 1970s before finally prohibiting most public uses of the insecticide.

Meanwhile, Gorham found himself in demand as an environmental advocate. “People started calling me up and asking me if I’d go and talk about this or that, and then acid rain came along,” he says.

The debate over the cause of acid rain and who should address it grew fierce in the ‘70s, with environmentalists looking for regulations and the power industry dragging its feet. The wider community of U.S. scientific researchers began to look seriously at the problem, including Gene Likens of Cornell University. His studies on acid rain grabbed public attention. They also helped bring Gorham’s work to the fore.

During this period, Gorham lectured at the U and spoke to civic groups about the dangers of acid rain. He testified before Congress and was one of four scientists appointed to the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality. The council was instrumental in drafting a plan for the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program, the centerpiece of President Jimmy Carter’s efforts to control acid rain.

There were many setbacks and battles to come as the smokestack industries took advantage of lax environmental regulation during the Reagan Administration. A 1982 New York Times piece noted at the time, “For those on whom the acid rain falls. . . the scientific evidence seems incontrovertible. Acid rain, much of it coming from the smokestacks of coal-burning power plants in the Ohio River Basin and other areas of the Middle West, is killing life in freshwater lakes, damaging forests and farmland and eroding buildings.” But to the power companies “that would have to pay for the installation of scrubbers to clean sulfur from the emissions of their tall stacks, the implications of the accumulated data are far from clear. The same is true for the . . . Reagan Administration, [which believes] that the government must do less regulating, not more.”

By the end of the ’80s, the pendulum had swung again, leading to the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which limited the emissions that cause acid rain. Today, the fight that reduced these emissions in the U.S. is considered a triumph of science and the environmental movement.

While comfortable in his retirement, Gorham worries, as might be expected, about the effects of climate change. “If you fly over the peatlands in northern Minnesota, you see fire scars across the landscape,” he says. “If the peatlands dry out more, natural fires could smolder for decades there—and wherever they are found around the world, from Siberia to Indonesia.”

Though Gorham no longer tromps around in the bogs near the U’s Itasca Biological Station, he keeps his hand in the science, publishing academic papers on water ecology with colleagues in the College of Biological Sciences.


Tim Brady, the author of five books, lives in St. Paul. He has been writing about the U’s history for this magazine since 1999.

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