Prominent acid rain researcher Eville Gorham dies

A longtime University of Minnesota professor whose critical discoveries about acid rain prompted modern environmental policy has died.

Eville Gorham
Eville Gorham
Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota

Eville Gorham died this week at the age of 94, according to a university spokesperson. His landmark research contributed to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963 and to the Clean Air Act Amendment of 1990.

Gorham was born in Nova Scotia, where he grew up and did his undergraduate studies before earning a doctorate in botany from University College London in 1951.

While researching water chemistry in England and Canada in the 1950s, he made a series of observations that connected sulfur pollution from smelters and burned fossil fuels to acid rain — which in turn increases the acidity of lakes and threatens wildlife.

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Though some credited Gorham with the “discovery” of acid rain, he liked to point out that a Victorian scientist identified acid rain long before he did.

In a 1999 interview with MPR News he said the findings also suggested what we’re doing to our environment, generally.

“If we're harming our lakes with acid rain, we're probably harming our forest as well,” he said. “We're probably doing other things to the environment that are harmful.”

Gorham's studies of water quality and plants in the lake districts of England led to another landmark discovery: he proved that radiation leaked from a nearby plutonium plant gathered in certain plants and also affected the animals who ate those plants. That connection between human action and the environment later helped fuel the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Gorham's research did not receive much response at the time it was published. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the urgency about acid rain took hold. By then, Gorham was teaching in the ecology department at the University of Minnesota.

He testified before Congress and was one of four scientists appointed to the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality.

Due in part to his influence, Congress passed new laws causing power plants to burn low sulfur coal.

Gorham taught at the U of M for 36 years. He said that he set out to study the chemistry of lake waters in the state, but he got sidetracked by Minnesota peatlands.

”People tend to think of this as the land of 10,000 lakes, it's probably the land of 20,000 peatlands,“ he told MPR News. ”And if you want real wilderness, don't go to the Boundary Waters, go to the Minnesota peatlands north of Red Lake.”

Gorham studied how peatlands store carbon and how, if they dry out due to changing weather conditions, they will release billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

For all the impact his research has had, he often said in interviews that his results were the result of luck.

"My kind of science is based on chance and serendipity. Something will turn up," he told one interviewer. “And so my view is, I think this might be interesting, let's get some data and see what they tell us."

Asked at his retirement in 1998 whether he felt optimistic that humanity knew how to solve the environmental issues he spent a lifetime studying, Gorham pointed out how much there is still to learn.

“Well, it's hard to say. We know what we have to do if we want to reduce the CO2 emissions to the atmosphere, so that's pretty straight forward, but in terms of repairing damage to ecosystems that have already been damaged, we're babes in the woods,” he said. “We just don't understand enough about nature to be able to restore it in the way that we would like.”

Even in retirement, Gorham continued to study the relationship between wetlands and the atmosphere. He received the Society of Wetland Scientists Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.