Gene E. Likens

Photo of Gene E. Likens
Gene E. Likens
  • From:

    Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies │ Millbrook, New York University of Connecticut │ Storrs, Connecticut

  • Year:

    2019

  • Subject:

    Earth and Environmental Science

  • Award:

    Benjamin Franklin Medal

  • Citation:

    For his pioneering long-term studies of forest, stream, and lake ecosystems, and for his efforts to educate the public and the U.S. government about acid rain and other environmental issues.

Ecologist Gene Likens’s quest to save America from acid rain started in New Hampshire, took him around the world, and led him Washington, DC. If you remember the 1970s and 80s, you probably remember acid rain. In the 1960s, after learning rainwater in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in the White Mountains of New Hampshire was a hundred times more acidic than expected, Likens traveled the globe, installing rainwater analysis stations in some of the most remote regions on Earth. When stations in areas unaffected by human industry reported normal levels of rainwater acidity, Likens took to the skies. He flew over Ohio in a small plane, chasing plumes of factory emissions while collecting samples out the aircraft window. Likens and his team uncovered the process by which industrial emissions combined with water vapor to create rainfall acidic enough to visibly damage buildings and infrastructure—and, more insidiously, harm ecosystems, especially delicate aquatic ones, killing fish and plant life. They found the effects could spread hundreds of miles from the emissions source. Likens had to speak out. His new aim was to educate the public and lawmakers about the dangerous effects of acid rain. His advocacy led to amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990, which drastically curbed the impact of acid rain in the U.S.