Industrialisation's hidden legacy

Friday 06th Jul 2012 by theWeather Club

During the 19th Century, Britain led the world through the Industrial Revolution. Now over two centuries later we are still living with environmental impacts that rapid industrialisation, and will continue to do so for many years to come. A BBC report has highlighted the impact that mining activities and an increase in acid rainfall have had on the landscape across Britain leading to polluted rivers, increased likelihood of flooding and a reduction in peat land.

The environmental impacts of mining for metals which has left rivers polluted; spoil heaps from mining that have been dumped in coastal and rural areas; and an increase in acid rainfall has left peat moors unprotected which in turn increases the likelihood of flooding and releases carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

Peat moorland in the Peak District, has been affected by 150 years of acid rain and made the peat there more acidic than lemon juice. The Peak District is bordered on three sides by the Victorian factories of Lancashire, South Yorkshire and Sheffield - there were 150 industrial chimneys in Oldham alone – the area was doused for years by sulphurous rain. Acid rain kills off the peat-building moss leaving the peat exposed to the elements. As the peat erodes, it flows into the reservoirs leaving a huge bill for the water companies who have to clean up the water. In the addition the peat moorland is very absorbent, and acts like a sponge, making it effective at preventing flooding so as the peat is eroded that flood protection is lost. Peat is also the single biggest store of atmospheric carbon in the UK – storing more than the forests of the UK and France combined - and as it erodes, the carbon is released into the air as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

Mining has been one of the biggest pollutants. Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) occurs when abandoned pits and slagheaps flood, overflow and contaminate rivers and soils. About 400 of the UK's waterways - roughly 1,800 miles in length - are thought to be affected by substances like cadmium, zinc, lead and arsenic. Although the risks to drinking water are deemed to be low because humans are relatively tolerant of this type of pollution, some rivers have been stripped of aquatic life.

There are estimated to be about 2,000 old mines in Cornwall alone, meaning hundreds of acres in the county are affected. A water treatment plant was set up at the former Wheal Jane tin mine, following the contamination of Falmouth Bay in 1992. Nearby Wheal Maid Britian, 19th century mine has been fenced off, deemed too hazardous for human activity. Nationally the overall cost of treatment could be £400m over 10 years.

The industrial revolution was a great moment in British history, but may have changed the country in more ways than we could have possibly imagined.