Chemtrails or Acid Rain ? - The Birth Of Two Myths


The idea that acid rain is some sort of hoax or scam is ludicrous. Sulfuric acid and its environmental effects have been known since ancient historical times. If acid rain is a hoax, then the ancient Sumerians and Greeks were certainly in on it. Modern science has been accumulating facts about environmental damage caused by sulfuric acid since at least 1736, when sulfuric acid was first produced industrially in Britain. When deniers of anthropogenic global warming claim that acid rain is a hoax they demonstrate, not their knowledge of science, but their political preferences, as here for example.

The chemtrail nonsense is an idea put forward by people who would rather believe a conspiracy theory than the physical laws of the universe.  Apparently, some mysterious "they" are putting chemicals in aircraft fuel for nefarious purposes.  The less extreme theories suggest that "they" are using HAARP to turn the atmosphere into a plasma, and as proof just look at the pretty colors in the clouds. Perhaps these people live in the perpetual haze of cities and have thus never seen rainbows in clouds.

If a plane is 'pumping out chemicals', other than the normal by-products of clean combustion, then maybe one or more engines need attention.  What is more likely, however is that "they" are testing new fuels and new engines.  If "they" want to dose the world at large with mind-altering substances they can sell it on street-corners for profit, rather than bribe tens of thousands of people to look the other way while the proverbial man in black puts something in a fuel tank.


Image courtesy NASA.


A brief history of the science and politics of acid rain.


There are some people who want you to think that acid rain is a hoax.  In their eagerness to "prove" their "theory" ( aka something they just made up ) they generally start talking about how the hoax began in the 1970s or late 1960s.  Certainly the term acid rain came into wide use in the 1970s, but the fact of acid rain was known much earlier.  When coal is burned, one of the many byproducts of combustion is sulfur dioxide.  This combines with atmospheric moisture to form sulfurous acid.  That acid, if it combines with water, turns into sulfuric acid.  That's the same acid - but much more dilute - which you get in the lead-acid battery.

As an aside I might mention that one of many methods for determining the environmental effects of airborne acid employed a measuring device which utilized the same reaction that damages lead-acid batteries: sulfation.  The degree of sulfation of a lead(IV)oxide surface exposed to air for a month is a measure of the corrosive effects of that air.  That proxy method was used in the 1930s to measure the effects of coal smoke in Britain.

Political concern in Britain about the damaging effects of sulfuric acid in those words is first recorded in 1855.
Mr. Dillwyn said, ... The cattle referred to had not been injured by the direct effect of the works upon the atmosphere, but by the dew becoming impregnated with sulphuric acid falling upon the herbage, and if they pleased, poisoning it. He only knew that he could keep his horses in much better condition at Swansea than in London.

Mr Lewis Dillwyn, Commons Hansard, July 12, 1855

[my emphasis]

By 1859 Parliament had become more aware of the effects of acid in the environment: Parliament's own home, the then new Palace of Westminster, was being attacked by acids.  Following the tally-stick fire of 1834, the rebuilding had been substantially finished by 1860.  Even while new construction was still in progress, damage from environmental pollution was extensive: the fall of stone fragments could already be measured in tons.
From some cause or other—either from the effects of the London atmosphere or from some inherent reason—the stone of which the Houses were built indicated a tendency to decay.
...
the question was put to the Treasury whether they would sanction a reference to some high scientific authority, with the view to ascertain, if possible, the cause of the decay, and some effectual remedy against the evil. The result had been a reference to Mr. Faraday,

Mr. Fitzroy, Commons Hansard, 15 July 1859

... 100 tons of lime were now poured every day into the Thames, and he was assured that the influence of this supply would be found very beneficial upon the river. ... With the exception of Portland stone, almost all the stone used for building in the metropolis was subject to decay. ... The subject could not be in better hands than Dr. Faraday's, and no doubt under his care the best chemical protection would be adopted to prevent decay. ... The stone used was magnesian limestone, while the atmosphere of London was impregnated with sulphur and sulphuric acid, which was produced by the use of coal, but he believed a remedy might be found, and the decay of the stone arrested.

Mr William Tite, Commons Hansard, 15 July 1859

Quite apart from his work in increasing our knowledge of electromagnetic phenomena, Michael Faraday performed excellent work in the investigation of the effect of acid on various types of building stones.  He was also a champion of action against environmental pollution.  His letter to the Times about using white cards in an experiment on pollution became widely known.
The appearance and the smell of the water forced themselves at once on my attention.  The whole of the river was an opaque pale brown fluid.  In order to test the degree of opacity, I tore up some white cards into pieces, moistened them so as to make them sink easily below the surface, and then dropped some of these pieces into the water at every pier the boat came to; before they had sunk an inch below the surface they were indistinguishable, though the sun shone brightly at the time

M. Faraday, Royal Institution, July 7


Faraday giving his card to Father Thames, Punch (21 July 1855)

Political concern about the effect of acid on Parliament's own stonework notwithstanding, political unconcern about sulfuric acid's precursor - sulfurous acid - was incorporated into law in the Alkali Act of 1863:
"Noxious or offensive gas does not include sulphurous acid arising from the combustion of coal."

By law, sulfurous acid was not noxious or offensive.  Does that sound familiar ?  The effect of the act was, on the face of the document, to control pollution.  The practical effect was to give enterprises a defence in law that they had reasonably tried to comply with the act.  This was clearly the intention of Parliament.   As one M.P. - who may have had more than an academic interest in the profit motive - said at the time:
"a manufacturer who complied with the requirements of the Act would be in a position to come into Court with a certificate of character and clear himself."

Mr. John Dodson, Commons Hansard, June 2, 1881

The widely cited case of Rylands v Fletcher which had clarified the law on liability, would seem to have been Mr. Dodson's target.  Certainly, for the manufacturers of alkali products affected by the act, it did permit a greater pollution nuisance than the common law had previously allowed.
In considering whether a Defendant is liable to a Plaintiff for damage which the Plaintiff may have sustained, the question in general is not whether the Defendant has acted with due care and caution, but whether his acts have occasioned the damage.

Rylands v Fletcher, [1868] UKHL 1

The first mention in the British Parliament of "acid rain" in those words, was December 14 1970.  Note the passing reference to aircraft.
... we have as a starting point sound, scientific knowledge founded upon research. We need this. We need it, for example, to appraise the real magnitude to the stability of the earth's climate, posed by supersonic aircraft flying in the stratosphere.
...
Our national effort, I believe, is but one element in what must increasingly be a world campaign. Many pollutants know no frontiers. In much of this matter, one nation's out-tray may be another nation's in-tray. We have, of course, heard the allegations that sulphur dioxide going up the chimneys in Britain may be coming down in acid rain over Scandinavia.  In any event, we know that the climate of the earth and the equilibrium of the oceans can be materially affected by what mankind discharges into the air or puts into the sea.

Earl Jellicoe, Lords Hansard, 14 December 1970

[my emphasis]

Between 1855 and 1970 there are (in various terms) far too many references to acid rain to enumerate here.  What is clear is that despite growing concern over acid rain and general  pollution from the burning of coal, nothing was done at a national level until well after the smog of 1952.  The reason becomes clear on wading through many years worth of Hansard.  In the words of the scientist Arnold Marsh, a refusal to recognize the seriousness of the effects of smoke was because: "statistics are incomplete or not conclusive beyond all dispute."  He goes on to say:
This is an example of an unfortunate tendency to be found in other fields, and although it appears to be ultra-scientific it is in fact fundamentally unscientific.  In its rigidity and demand for precision and finality it begins to attach more importance to the data than to the purpose for which the data can be used: it refuses to admit the existence of the wood because of the difficulty of enumerating and classifying the trees.

Arnold Marsh, Smoke, The Problem of Coal and the Atmosphere, 1947

In WW2, such smoke control laws as existed were relaxed in an effort to use the smoke, haze and smog to obscure targets from enemy bombers.  The laws were enforced once more when it was found that the allies own bombers often had difficulty landing at their own bases.

Arnold Marsh's book collated a wealth of scientific observations about smoke and chemical pollutants from the burning of coal.  He showed that enterprises and the national economy could both profit from an efficient combustion of coal which produces less smoke, or none.  As we say nowadays: he was proposing a win - win situation.  Despite Marsh's book and despite the killer smog of 1952, Parliament did not produce an effective remedy until the Clean Air Act 1956.

In the U.K., and many other countries, smoke and acid rain from the burning of coal is a thing of the past.  Unfortunately, we still have not dealt with the problems of chemical hazes due to the use of other fossil fuels.  Notably, China lags behind the rest of the world in emissions control.  Perhaps Arnold Marsh's book needs to be translated into Chinese.


Acid rain or chemtrails ?

The earliest reference I can find to a claim that it was an aeroplane rather than acid rain which caused a problem is in three newspaper articles from the same day: September 4 1949.
Tilghman, Md, (UP) - State Chemist Henry C. Freimuch absolved military aircraft of blame in the "acid rain" which plagued this island community for 2 days, burning holes in clothing and ruining the paint on cars.
  Dr. Freimuch blamed the mystery mist on soft coal smoke, combined with moist air.
  After analysing the acid-eaten paint of an automobile, Freimuch produced this explanation for the strange visitation:
  "Sulphur tri-oxide from very soft coal with a high sulphur content when combined with carbon particles and moist air forms a sulphuric acid which descended on Tighman."
  Citizens of this Chesapeake Bay town, whose prinmciple industry is fishing, thought Freimuch's explanation a bit on the prosaic side.  J. Harry Fairbanks of the fire department said that before each onslought of the Mist Friday and Thursday a plane had flown over the town.
  "The plane let out a small cloud which soon grew into a large cloud, and then the tiny drops of rain began to fall," Fairbanks said.
  Both Air Force and Navy officials denied, however, that any military aircraft had anything to do with Tilghman's searing rain.

Smoke Brings Acid Rain
Herald-Journal - 4 Sep 1949

See also:
Coal Smoke, Not Planes, Blame For 'Acid Rain' Over Maryland
Pittsburgh Press - 4 Sep 1949

Coal Smoke Blamed For Rain Of Acid
Sunday Herald - 4 Sep 1949


It only remains to ask who to believe when deciding between the realities of acid rain and chemtrails: scientists and philosophers since the Sumerians or a fireman?


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also enjoy: Pollution And Parliament, and other articles from The Chatter Box.
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