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Death of the Great Smokies: How air pollution is killing the Great Smoky Mountains

We here at eJourna are proud to take part in Blog Action Day ’09: Climate Change.  Here’s a lit­tle about Blog Action Day:

Blog Action Day is an annual event that unites the world’s blog­gers in post­ing about the same issue on the same day on their own blogs with the aim of spark­ing dis­cus­sion around an issue of global impor­tance. Blog Action Day 2009 will be the largest-ever social change event on the web. One day. One issue. Thousands of voices.

Since eJourna is all about travel, espe­cially to some of the won­der­ful local, state and national parks that exist here in our great coun­try, it’s only nat­ural that we were inter­ested in tak­ing part in a national day about cli­mate change. Having vis­ited the Great Smoky Mountains a num­ber of times in past few years, we’ve seen first-hand the dev­as­ta­tion wrought on this won­der­ful nat­ural park by acid rain and air pol­lu­tion. We thought it only appro­pri­ate that we focus on that for our Blog Action Day ’09: Climate Change post. — Ron & Tonia, eJourna

Autumn, Mountain View - Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Autumn, Mountain View — Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Air pol­lu­tion is shrink­ing scenic views, dam­ag­ing plants, and degrad­ing high ele­va­tion streams and soils in the Great Smoky Mountains. Even human health is at risk. Most pol­lu­tion orig­i­nates out­side the park and is cre­ated by power plants, indus­try, and automobiles.

Research and mon­i­tor­ing con­ducted in Great Smoky Mountains National Park has shown that air­borne pol­lu­tants emit­ted from mostly out­side the Smokies are degrad­ing park resources and vis­i­tor enjoy­ment. The burn­ing of fos­sil fuels—coal, oil, and gas—causes most of the pol­lu­tion. Inadequate pol­lu­tion con­trol equip­ment in power plants, fac­to­ries, and auto­mo­biles is the pri­mary problem.

Wind cur­rents mov­ing toward the south­ern Appalachians trans­port pol­lu­tants from urban areas, indus­trial sites, and power plants located both near and far. The height and phys­i­cal struc­ture of the moun­tains, com­bined with pre­dom­i­nant weather pat­terns, tend to trap and con­cen­trate human-made pol­lu­tants in and around the national park.

Shrinking Views

Views from scenic over­looks at Great Smoky Mountains National Park have been seri­ously degraded over the last 50 years by human-made pol­lu­tion. Since 1948, based on regional air­port records, aver­age vis­i­bil­ity in the south­ern Appalachians has decreased 40% in win­ter and 80% in sum­mer. These degra­da­tions in vis­i­bil­ity not only affect how far one can see from a scenic over­look, they also reduce how well one can see. Pollution causes col­ors to appear washed out and obscures land­scape fea­tures. Pollution typ­i­cally appears as a uni­form whitish haze, dif­fer­ent from the nat­ural mist-like clouds for which the Smokies were named.

The burn­ing of fos­sil fuels pro­duces tiny air­borne sul­fate par­ti­cles which scat­ter light and degrade vis­i­bil­ity. Increasingly, vis­i­tors no longer see dis­tant moun­tain ridges because of this haze. Annual aver­age vis­i­bil­ity at Great Smoky Mountains National Park is 25 miles, com­pared to nat­ural con­di­tions of 93 miles. During severe haze episodes, vis­i­bil­ity has been reduced to under one mile. Sulfate con­cen­tra­tions increased in the region by 27% from 1984–1999. Electricity-generating power plants are the source of most sulfates.

In a 1996 sur­vey, 74% of sum­mer vis­i­tors to the Smokies said clean air was “extremely impor­tant” to them dur­ing their stay in the park; 84% said scenic views were “extremely important.”

Ground-level Ozone Pollution Threatens People, Plants

Another air qual­ity prob­lem, ozone pol­lu­tion, threat­ens human health and park plants. Not to be con­fused with the nat­u­rally occur­ring, ben­e­fi­cial ozone layer which fil­ters the sun’s ultra­vi­o­let rays, ground level ozone is a col­or­less gas cre­ated when nitro­gen oxides mix with hydro­car­bons in the pres­ence of sun­light. Power plants, auto­mo­biles, and fac­to­ries are the main pro­duc­ers of nitro­gen oxides. Most ozone pol­lu­tion orig­i­nates out­side the park and trav­els to the Smokies on pre­vail­ing winds.

Ozone expo­sures in the park are among the high­est in the East and in recent years have exceeded lev­els that threaten human health. On aver­age, ozone lev­els over the ridgetops of the park are up to two times higher than in nearby cities, includ­ing Knoxville and Atlanta.

Ozone is a pow­er­ful res­pi­ra­tory irri­tant for humans. Research shows that ozone can cause cough­ing, sinus inflam­ma­tion, chest pains, scratchy throat, even per­ma­nent dam­age to lung tis­sue and reduced immune sys­tem func­tions. Children, the elderly, peo­ple with exist­ing health prob­lems, and active adults are most vulnerable.

Ozone lev­els are injur­ing trees and other plants. Thirty species of plants showed leaf dam­age after being exposed to con­trolled ozone lev­els iden­ti­cal to those that occur in the park. To fur­ther quan­tify ozone injury to plants, per­ma­nent mon­i­tor­ing plots were set up in the park. In gen­eral, researchers have found that ozone expo­sure and dam­age to plants are worse at the higher ele­va­tions. They have also doc­u­mented that up to 90% of black cherry trees and milk­weed plants in numer­ous park loca­tions show symp­toms of ozone dam­age. Some of the other plants that show ozone dam­age symp­toms include tulip­tree, sas­safras, winged sumac, black­berry, and cut­leaf coneflower.

Acid Rain, Acid Clouds, and Nitrogen Overload

Plants and ani­mals in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are also threat­ened by air­borne sul­fur and nitro­gen pol­lu­tion. The park receives the high­est sul­fur and nitro­gen deposits of any mon­i­tored national park. These pol­lu­tants fall to the ground not only as acid rain, but also as dry par­ti­cles and cloud water. The aver­age acid­ity (pH) of rain­fall in the park is 4.5, 5–10 times more acidic than nor­mal rain­fall (5.0–5.6). Clouds with acid­ity as low as 2.0 pH bathe the high ele­va­tion forests dur­ing part of the grow­ing season.

Research shows that cer­tain high ele­va­tion soils in the park are receiv­ing so much air­borne nitro­gen that they are suf­fer­ing from advanced nitro­gen sat­u­ra­tion. This con­di­tion lim­its the avail­abil­ity of for­est nutri­ents, espe­cially cal­cium, to plants and causes the release of toxic alu­minum that can hurt veg­e­ta­tion and stream­life. Mountain streams and for­est soils are being acid­i­fied to the point that the health of the park’s high ele­va­tion ecosys­tems is in jeop­ardy. Nitrate lev­els in some streams are approach­ing the pub­lic health stan­dard for drink­ing water.

Federal man­dates for clean air

Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, estab­lish­ing national pol­icy for pre­serv­ing, pro­tect­ing, and enhanc­ing air qual­ity. The 1977 amend­ments des­ig­nated all national parks that exceed 6,000 acres as manda­tory Class I areas wor­thy of the great­est degree of air qual­ity pro­tec­tion under the Act. Also under the Act, Congress man­dates the fed­eral land man­ager (Department of Interior Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, in the case of the Smokies) to “pro­tect air-quality related val­ues,” includ­ing vis­i­bil­ity, flora, fauna, sur­face water, ecosys­tems, and his­toric resources. It fur­ther directs the land man­ager to “assume an aggres­sive role in pro­tect­ing the air qual­ity val­ues of land areas under his juris­dic­tion… In cases of doubt the land man­ager should err on the side of pro­tect­ing the air quality-related val­ues for future generations.”

Finding Solutions

Under the Clean Air Act, the National Park Service is invited to com­ment on state air qual­ity per­mit appli­ca­tions for major fac­to­ries, power plants, and other air pol­lu­tion sources pro­posed for loca­tion near Class I areas. Since 1980, the Park Service has sent com­ments to nearby state and local agen­cies on over two dozen per­mit appli­ca­tions cov­er­ing new pol­lu­tion sources near the park. The Park Service has worked with state author­i­ties to try to ensure that any increases in pol­lu­tion be “off­set” by reduc­tions in pol­lu­tant out­put else­where, and that the best avail­able con­trol tech­nol­ogy be used to min­i­mize the amount of new pol­lu­tion produced.

In 1992, the U.S. Interior Department Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks rec­om­mended that air pol­lu­tion per­mit­ting author­i­ties in five neigh­bor­ing states not issue per­mits for new major pol­lu­tion sources within 120 miles of the park unless mea­sures are taken to pre­vent increas­ing impacts on park resources.

Also in 1992, the Southern Appalachian Mountains Initiative (SAMI) was estab­lished as a com­pre­hen­sive approach to improv­ing regional air qual­ity. SAMI is a vol­un­tary, multi-organizational ini­tia­tive charged to cur­tail the adverse effects of air pol­lu­tion on the south­ern Appalachians, par­tic­u­larly in Class I areas. Members include state and fed­eral agen­cies, envi­ron­men­tal groups, and indus­try and util­ity rep­re­sen­ta­tives. However, until the SAMI com­pletes its work, and effec­tive regional solu­tions are devel­oped and adopted, the Park Service will con­tinue to act on indi­vid­ual per­mits on a case-by-case basis to pre­vent air pol­lu­tion from wors­en­ing. The lack of an emis­sions off­set require­ment is hin­der­ing the air qual­ity pro­tec­tion efforts for the park.

Park Service Position

It is the posi­tion of the National Park Service that new emis­sion per­mits for indus­tries and util­i­ties in the region that will adversely impact the park should be granted only when “best avail­able con­trol tech­nol­ogy” is planned and when off­set reduc­tions are taken to pre­vent any net increase in pol­lu­tants. The Park Service also sup­ports the strictest pos­si­ble state reg­u­la­tions on auto and other emis­sions which con­tribute to the problem.

The Park Service is work­ing with state reg­u­la­tory agen­cies, the Environmental Protection Agency, and indus­trial and util­ity inter­ests to develop a com­pre­hen­sive plan to pre­vent future dam­age through such mea­sures as off­set pro­grams, the use of improved tech­nol­ogy, and deter­mi­na­tion of emis­sion caps and gov­ern­ment stan­dards for var­i­ous pol­lu­tants. To rem­edy air pol­lu­tion prob­lems at the park, addi­tional reduc­tions of nitro­gen oxides and sul­fur diox­ide are necessary.

What you can do:

• Conserve energy in the home and work place.
• Use energy-efficient appli­ances and forms of trans­porta­tion.
• Keep your motor vehi­cles in good oper­at­ing con­di­tion.
• Let gov­ern­ment offi­cials know that air qual­ity is impor­tant to you.

Additional Resources:

Briefing Statement — Air Quality
Current sta­tus and future prog­no­sis for air qual­ity in the park.

Air Quality Folio
Information explain­ing the air pol­lu­tion prob­lems affect­ing the park. This is a 257 KB .pdf file.

Did You Know?

The wispy, smoke-like fog that hangs over the Smoky Mountains comes from rain and evap­o­ra­tion from trees. On the high peaks of the Smokies, an aver­age of 85 inches of rain falls each year, qual­i­fy­ing these upper ele­va­tion areas as tem­per­ate rain forests.

Related posts:

  1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park Celebrates 75 Years Ablaze in Autumn Color
  2. Learn To Surf This Winter In The Mountains of Tennessee
  3. Family-Friendly Tennessee Hotels and Attractions
  4. Ohio’s Ozone Zipline Adventures Announces Major Expansion With Longer Zip Lines
  5. Smoky Mountain Winterfest’s “Tender Tennessee Christmas”

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