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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Phantom Menace: Air Pollution Threatens Western National Parks

Invisible but dangerous, airborne pollutants are a danger to the West's most iconic national parks

by: by Amanda Leigh Mascarelli

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Rocky Mountain National Park (Anthony Cerretani)
Rocky Mountain National Park (Anthony Cerretani)

It’s just past 8 on a June morning in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, and the sun already beats down through a cloudless sapphire sky. Jill Baron jams on a floppy-brimmed hat, shoulders a bulging pack, and starts hiking. A handful of graduate students follow her; they’re laden with bamboo poles, metal stakes, and other scientific equipment. The three-mile trail to Loch Vale—a glacier-sculpted valley cupping several pristine alpine lakes—is a well-worn route for Baron, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and Colorado State University. She or one of her colleagues has trekked through these wildflower-studded aspen and conifer groves every week, year-round, for the past 25 years. “Every day is a perfect day up here,” Baron says. But she knows better than anyone that an invisible menace has been creeping in for decades, threatening to wreak havoc on the park’s raw beauty.

The culprit? Nitrogen, an element that makes up 78 percent of the air we breathe. Nitrogen in the air is not reactive; it is converted to a reactive state through combustion processes or fixation by plants. In normal concentrations, nitrogen is a crucial building block of DNA, proteins, and enzymes, and a vital part of plant growth. But in excess, reactive nitrogen leads to adverse effects, causing nutrient imbalances that can send shockwaves through an ecosystem. Too much nitrogen in the ecosystem means fast-growing, aggressive grasses could overwhelm the slower-growing, showy alpine flora—such as moss campion, a violet-hued wildflower that springs up in dainty bouquets throughout high-alpine regions—that have become perfectly adapted to their low-nutrient conditions. Add even more nitrogen, and the nutrient begins to act like a poison, bleeding nutrients out of the soil and water and eventually killing fish and the organisms they feed on. Here at Rocky Mountain, Baron has discovered that nitrogen levels on the east side of the park are three to four times higher than normal, and have been increasing by about 2.5 percent per year since the early ‘80s.

By sifting through historic layers of sediment, Baron found that nitrogen levels began to rise around 1950—right about the time when nearby Front Range cities began booming and farmers started using nitrogen-based synthetic fertilizers. Nitrogen is released into the air from vehicle exhaust, power plants, fertilizers, and even the manure from feedlots. How that nitrogen is reaching the park is not entirely clear, says Baron, but recent studies point to the upslope movement of air pollution from the Front Range. And the problem is not isolated to Rocky Mountain National Park. Nitrogen deposition is increasing at a number of national parks in the West and East, including Mount Rainier in Washington, Grand Teton in Wyoming, Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, and Acadia in Maine. Heightened nitrogen deposition occurs in “hot spots” that are downwind of agricultural and metropolitan areas.

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Air Pollution Facts
Nov 19, 2010

When smoke accumulation reared its ugly head in the 19th century, the British Parliament deemed it a good idea to do various studies of their urban pollutant and even passed the Public Health Act of 1875, which concluded the smoke to be a nuisance that needed to be eliminated. Groups of engineers were formed to define the quantity and composition of the pollutants, and to figure out ways of clean-burning, smokeless coal. Smoke-abatement caught on in America as well; we didnít want to be wasting a natural resource by burning it inefficiently, as evidenced by the accumulation of soot.

Chiropractic Marketing
Feb 05, 2010

<a href="">Air is the most important element of human environment. Man can't live a single moments without air. But we don't think that it is we who pollute this most vital element. Clean air is essential for life. Air is polluted in many ways. Smoke pollutes air. Man makes fires to cook his food.To make bricks burns refuse, melts pitch for road construction and burns wood. All these things produce heavy smoke and this smoke pollutes air. Railway engies, power houses, mills and factories use coal and oil. buses, tucks and cars use petrol and diesel oil. Again all these things create smoke and cause air pollution. The most serious air pollution occurs in big industrial areas where there are many mills and factories. serious air pollution also occurs in big cities where there are many buses, trucks and cars plying the street everyday. Sometimes men in big industrial area become so sick by inhaling polluted air that they cannot be cued. So proper measures and steps should be taken to prevent air pollution.</a>

Nov 17, 2009

urs ammayimma

Aug 27, 2009

maybe mother nature will adapt over time and develop a way to survive increasing levels of nitrogen like the plants have since levels began increasing in 1950. maybe mother nature will evolve to the ever changing conditions in the atmosphere and create a new wonderful thriving plant species. Chances are mother nature will win in the long run.


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