What is Thermal Pollution and Its Effects?

The Outbreak of Thermal Pollution

Thermal Pollution

Thermal pollution is the kind of water contamination that takes place when heated water gets into natural bodies of water. Thermal or nuclear power plants are the ones that contribute to the said pollution the most. As a result, it damages water ecosystems and poses threat to specific animal species. Moreover, it disrupts the equilibrium that exists in the process of the food chain, which, in return, messes up the overall balance of species arrangement.

These power plants produce an excessive amount of harmful chemicals and induce dangerous processes such as the following:

1.1 Industrial effluents

This is any type of liquid that came as thermal discharges with the potential to harm water. This may include petroleum refineries, pulp, and paper mills, chemical plants, steel mills, and smelters.

1.2 Sewage Effluents

There are certain industrial plants that produce high amounts of domestic sewage effluents which are water with contents of lavatories, or dirty water used in washing clothes or dishes, and cooking meals.

1.3 Biochemical Movement

Day-to-day operations in industrial plants can induce this process. It denotes a chemical process that occurs in living things, specifically with the involvement of biomolecules.

To expound further, the encompassing water temperature is the most fundamental unit that allows aquatic fauna and certain vegetation such as flora; to exist, grow, and survive. Due to the damaging effects of thermal pollution, the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water diminishes by a significant amount. As we all know, this oxygen is what many aquatic species rely on for survival. Not only that but it can also put fish larvae and eggs in danger, as well as kill certain species of fish with very limited tolerance for the abrupt change in the temperature of the water. What's more, thermal pollution can also induce the migration of aquatic organisms from their natural habitat just to survive and be safe.

Globally, the top three countries with the most elevated combined rates of thermal emissions are the United States, China, and France. In the United States alone, seventy-five (75) to eighty (80) percent of thermal pollution comes from industrial power plants. The remaining twenty (20) to twenty-five (25) percent comes from industrial sources such as the ones mentioned above.

Due to the constant degradation of water quality, all living things —humans and animals alike—as well as the environment are put in so much danger. What's worse is that thermal pollution comes largely from the result of certain human influences and actions. The moment warm water gets mixed into the ocean, it alters the physical properties of water. Consequently, it interrupts the natural processes of the ecosystem, produces stress in natural systems, triggers the emergence of certain diseases and illnesses, and ultimately, it can be lethal, too —causing the death of thousands of vulnerable and affected living organisms.

Gear up! Let's dive deeper into the nature of thermal pollution; where it came from and what/who caused it. While we're at it, let us also get into detail about the effects of thermal pollution on human life and the environment. And finally, given the gravity of thermal pollution, what can we do to lessen its effects and remedy it for good?

The 3 Main Causes of Thermal Pollution

The Causes of Thermal Pollution

There are natural occurrences that may lead to thermal pollution. Some of which are wildfire, volcano eruptions, and submerged warm vents. But most often than not, thermal pollution happens due to industrial processes which involve using and dumping large amounts of heated wastewater into a large body of water.

  1. Power Plants and Industrial Facilities

    Thermoelectric power plants involve the process of producing heat, and then eventually, the heat gets converted into water—which is now what runs through a big and long series of pipes in the boiler to steam. Definitely, this is one cause of thermal pollution. These power plants operate and function by utilizing coal, natural gas, nuclear, or biomass. In addition to that, it can also use other waste products to conduct its day-to-day utility. Generally, power plants are constructed and situated near a body of water—such as a river, lake, or ocean—to get a nearby, instant, and a steady supply of water. As such, it condensed and gets transformed into steam, which, in return, fuels turbines to produce electrical power. In another aspect, water is also utilized in cool-inducing types of machinery—which, ironically, gets very hot, thereby fueling it to release excess heat into the water. To continue, the water soaks up in heat, while the excess of the evaporation process gets discharged back to the source.

    On the other hand, there are also a number of industrial facilities that greatly contribute to the growing effect of thermal pollution. These facilities use harmful chemicals such as paper mills, chemical plants, and steel mills which contain dangerous agents that can damage water quality as a whole. Furthermore, these industrial facilities also use water to cool machinery and discharge them thereafter in heated temperatures.

    Not to mention, this process of pumping out water supply from a large and natural body of water such as lakes, oceans, or rivers— for the purpose of conveying industrial-related operations—is, in itself, dangerous. Especially since after water is utilized for certain industrial purposes, it gets discharged back into the ocean within a heated state. As a result, it poses adverse effects on the aquatic ecosystem and marine environments. In a specific instance, once the cooling is done, marine animals such as fish and larvae get trapped in intake screens and die. Moreover, aquatic habitats receive negative changes due to constant discharge and exposure to heated and polluted wastewater.

  2. Desalination Plants

    Just like power plants and industrial facilities, desalination plants also use once-through cooling. In fact, more than half of the seawater utilized in the desalination process gets discharged back into the body of water as wastewater at a heated temperature.

    Worse, there are some countries where desalination plants are constructed closely together, causing and producing large amounts of heated and polluted wastewater in shallow coastal regions. As a result, the temperature of seawater may potentially rise, and its salinity as well a considerably significant amount.

  3. Wastewater, Erosion, and Deforestation

    One important thing to note is that not all wastewater goes through a treatment process before it is discharged back into a natural body of water. As such, there are untreated domestic sewage, city stormwater, and agricultural waste which can cause thermal contamination in water sources that are within the reach. So, why is that so? You might ask. This is because runoff waters and discharges are, most often than not, warmer in temperature as compared to that of the streams, lakes, or oceans they flow into.

    Moreover, lands used by humans generate specific changes that may result in thermal pollution as well. One specific human-induced cause of thermal pollution is deforestation. As humans harvest timber, or if not, clear land for crop planting and livestock raising, erosion becomes the climax that waits at the end. Not only that, but it can also cause rivers and streams to have much wider and shallower stream beds—which, by the way, is not exactly a good thing since it is prone to warming. In addition to that, clearing operations of trees and certain types of vegetation within the vicinity of lakeshores and riverbanks also allow for more (and mostly, excessive) exposure to the sun—which, in return, triggers water warming.

The Seven Major Effects of Thermal Pollution

The Effects of Thermal Pollution
  1. Decreased Amount of Dissolved Oxygen Levels

    As previously stated, warm water contains much lesser oxygen than cold water. In the case where the oxygen level drops, animals who failed to migrate to safety will die. In deeper bodies of water, the infusion of water with warmer temperatures can hold oxygen back from scattering into deep water, which may be a good thing for microscopic organisms, however, it can be seriously lethal for other aquatic animals. As such, the dissolved oxygen can result in the growth of algae sprouts - which, in return, places some aquatic plants and animals in a very dangerous condition. Needless to say, the algae bloom problem is one of the most negative side effects of thermal pollution due to the proliferation of dissolved oxygen.

  2. Migration of Living Things

    Fish and other amphibians creatures may "migrate" due to the elevated temperatures of the water. In essence, they will move away from their current home and find a much safer place. This migration of animals is very dangerous because it disrupts the ecosystem for those animals who were left behind. Apart from aquatic animals, birds may also be in dire need of migration, in the event that thermal pollution has at last caused their food supply to be in huge scarcity. This means that birds will migrate, and go as far as they can, to look for areas with more food.

    Consequently, there are plants and animals that will remain in the area. Due to the effects of migration, the living organisms that remain will suffer huge ecosystem losses. Due to the high risks of thermal pollution, animals will have no choice but to migrate somewhere else for the purpose of survival. This, in return, causes a dramatic effect on the biodiversity that existed prior to water pollution.

  3. Increased Toxins in the Water

    One of the damaging side effects of dumping wastewater is the toxins that get mixed into the water. The accumulation of toxins in water can directly affect the emergence of thermal pollution in the area. Another thing is chemical pollution, which, to be frank, is an unpredictable side effect of using water for cooling. Consequently, harmful chemicals such as solvents, fuel oil, and heavy metals ended up getting dumped in the lake, river, or any other bodies of water. Likewise, a nuclear power plant is also known to produce radioactive cooling water. In retrospect, all of these pose toxic effects to both plants and animals; resulting in poisoning, mutations, and pasteurization.

  4. Loss of Biodiversity

    When bodies of water, that used to be cool, suddenly become warm; a lot of organisms in specific vulnerability will be driven away, or worse, die. If this happens over and over again, it threatens animals and endangered certain animal species. The heated water can also interrupt the daily activities of animals underneath the water surface such as reproducing and laying eggs. To some, animals may be nothing but simple subjects of casualties of human-induced water pollution —but seriously, can’t we do any better? In addition to that, multi-celled aquatic plants are also put in a dangerous place when the verge of thermal pollution awaits at the tip of the aquatic ecosystem.

  5. Negative Ecological Impacts

    To reiterate, the whole aquatic ecosystem is vulnerable to the effects brought upon by thermal pollution. This effect can drastically vary, especially if large amounts of heated water get dumped into large bodies of chilly water. A phenomenon known as thermal shock may occur; killing insects, fish, and other amphibians as a result. The deaths of these animals provoke more issues with the biodiversity in the ecosystem. For one, animals will no longer have adequate food sources. Next, when the majority of the local population of aquatic organisms migrate, the extinction of species may occur. Lastly, coral reef bleaching may occur when power plants or industrial factories recklessly and irresponsibly dump wastewater into the ocean. To put it simply, coral bleaching takes place when the coral organisms that maintain the coral reefs die, possibly, due to thermal pollution.

  6. Reproductive Effects Of Thermal Pollution

    A sudden rise in the temperature of the water, by a substantial amount at that, can result in a variety of reproductive problems among aquatic animals. Heated water reduces the fertility rate and capacity of certain organisms underneath the water surface. To some, it may even cause serious birth defects or result in the laying of deformed eggs. So, why is that so, you may ask? This is because warmer water tends to trigger certain chemical changes in the bodies of aquatic animals. Needless to say, defective eggs and other types of birth defects decrease the overall reproductivity rate of the aquatic population. In line with this, you can say that thermal pollution is really dangerous because it has the ability to alter the biological composition of aquatic organisms.

  7. Increased Metabolic Rate Thermal Pollution

    Warm water is not necessarily bad for every single aquatic organism. For example, it may actually generate positive effects on cold-blooded fish and amphibians. However, it is only for a very limited amount of time. And even so, the majority of the animals in the vast ocean do not react well to water with a warmer temperature. The animals who adapt better to warmer water can destroy the equilibrium of the surroundings. As such, they may take advantage of the situation and out-compete other aquatic animals by either eating them alive or finishing up all sources of food, or leaving them to die out of starvation.

    Another effect of the warm temperature is that it can speed up the metabolic rate of aquatic creatures. If you think it is a good thing, let me tell you that it’s not —because a fast metabolism means that animals will need more food, to the point of scarcity in the local ecosystem.

The Resolution, Mitigation, and Undertakings for Thermal Pollution

The Mitigation of Thermal Pollution

Finally, as we reach the end, what are the resolution, mitigation, and a number of undertakings that we can employ to lessen the effects of thermal pollution? In the United States, thermal pollution is properly regulated by the federal law of the Clean Water Act. Inside the law, it requires states to set specific standards and limitations for thermal discharges, to which, power plants and other industrial facilities should adhere, otherwise, they will not be given permits to operate any longer.

Moreover, there are new and emerging technological advances that can provide the means for mitigating thermal pollution. These include types of machinery that can reduce the levels of water discharged by power plants and other industrial sources to natural bodies of water and use them for other purposes/processes instead. One example would be using heated wastewater for desalination instead to reduce the risk of thermal pollution.

Apart from that, as individuals, there are also things that we can do to lessen —and not further contribute—to thermal pollution such as saving electricity and planting trees along the shorelines. Moreover, we can also opt to use other alternative sources of energy such as solar energy or hydropower energy. To add, we can also reuse and recycle water if we can. The bottom line is that there are precautionary steps and measures that we can do to eradicate the risk of thermal pollution.

Ultimately, thermal pollution calls for great environmental concerns. Its impacts on human life, animals, and the surroundings can come a long way; from climate change, and food scarcity, to the deaths of some living things. As such, it really disrupts the existing biodiversity and destroys certain ecological processes that are crucial to life.

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