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Published on June 13th, 2019 | by Jake Richardson


96% Of National Parks Negatively Impacted By Air Pollution (Report)

June 13th, 2019 by  

The National Parks Conservation Association recently published a report that contains a number of insights about the negative impacts that air pollution is causing in US National Parks. Perhaps the most sweeping one is that, “96 percent of the 417 national parks assessed are plagued by significant air pollution problems.” Or course that means nearly all of the parks studied are being negatively impacted in some ways. National parks typically are located in areas that aren’t within or near the most densely populated areas where the worst air pollution is, and yet air pollution is still being transported to them. The report notes that 85% of the national parks have unhealthy air sometimes and that 88% have air pollution deposition in soils and water. It also observes that all the parks are being impacted by climate change. Stephanie Kodish, the National Parks Conservation Association’s Clean Air Program Director, answered some questions about the report for CleanTechnica.

1. What prompted the National Parks air pollution study?

A variety of things. We wanted to provide a relatively comprehensive assessment of the different ways that pollution harms national parks. While various studies and data sets provide aspects of this information, there wasn’t one source that captured multiple effects to tell the story that pollution has a pervasive impact on national parks, the places people cherish and believe to be guarded from such harms.

Also, the laws meant to protect our national parks, communities and planet are being rolled back in a manner our nation has never seen. The regulations that have helped improve our nation’s air quality steadily over the years are now in grave jeopardy as the Trump Administration reverses the direction of clean air and climate rules, putting industry profit above the health of our environment and disregarding the impact on our communities and public lands.

2. Who conducted the research and how was it coordinated across hundreds of parks?

The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) compiled and assessed multiple data sets and studies produced by the National Park Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and academics. For a full list of sources please see the citations in Polluted Parks as well as the section on methodology.

3. What kind of damage is air pollution causing in National Parks?

While most air pollution doesn’t originate in National Parks, it can travel hundreds of miles from its source, thereby affecting all parks — even remote ones — and distant communities. Much of this pollution begins with extracting fossil fuels, including oil, gas and coal, and burning them in power plants and vehicles.

There are many types of pollution that harm both people and parks – conventional, toxics, and greenhouse gases. Our study looked specifically at nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides and greenhouse gas emissions. We also looked at harms related to ozone, which is caused when volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides react in sunlight.

4. What are some of the most threatened parks?

California parks such as Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yosemite, and Joshua Tree are a few of the most threatened National Parks. So are parks like Olympic and Glacier that stand to lose resources that define their landscapes due to climate change.

5. What can be done to reduce or eliminate air pollution in National Parks?

Fortunately, there are clear and feasible solutions: reducing air pollution and making a just transition to clean energy. For 100 years, the National Parks Conservation Association has been working to protect our national parks, and today, we are as ready as ever to protect them for 100 more. NPCA continues to work to defend critical clean air and climate laws, hold polluters and our government accountable and advocate for pollution reductions by empowering people and communities.

Strong implementation of the Regional Haze Rule is crucial. All states must submit their next round of regional haze plans by 2021 (compliance with these plans is required by 2028), which must contain a plan for reducing the pollution that impairs national park visibility. The same sources of visibility impairment are also the very sources of pollution that are unhealthy for people to breathe, harm nature and contribute to climate change. Therefore, plans for addressing pollution from the sectors and sources that cause pollution problems in parks are critical.

Our federal air and climate laws must be implemented and strengthened, not weakened. Federal and state governments must hold polluters accountable by advancing and strengthening regulations that require sharp reductions in air pollution from oil and gas development.

And the administration and Congress must restore and safeguard unbiased science in the foundation of health and environmental policies.

6. How long has air pollution in National Parks been a problem?

Air pollution has been a problem for National Parks for many decades. Findings of the effects of pollution on parks predated and gave rise to the 1977 Clean Air Act Amendments, which included specific provisions to limit pollution harming national parks and lands and established the goal of restoring natural air quality conditions to “Class I” designated national parks and wilderness areas. There are 156 federally mandated Class I areas, which include 48 national parks.

7. Will phasing out coal power plants help solve the problem?

Yes. Coal-fired power plants emit substantial levels of park-harming pollution. Emissions don’t respect park boundaries and can travel far from the source, harming national parks’ natural and cultural resources, visitors and wildlife.

8. Will ZEV and EV vehicles help reduce air pollution in national parks?

Yes. Vehicles emit various pollutants that contribute to air pollution problems in parks, for example emission of nitrogen oxides contribute to hazy skies and carbon dioxide is a driver of climate change (with this sector emitting the highest amount of greenhouse gases). The quicker and more effectively we can omit pollution from cars, the better off our parks, people and planet will be.

9. Are air pollution levels in parks typically higher in summer when the most tourists are visiting?

Typically, yes. Air pollution is posing a health risk to some of the 330 million people who visit our National Parks each year, as well as the communities who surround them. The challenges facing our parks are undeniable, but so is our resolve to help clear their air and ensure they are protected as they were meant to be, by both their founders and by the laws in place to protect them.

10. Can you already see evidence that climate change is damaging National Parks?

Climate change is a significant concern for 80% of our National Parks (335 parks). These parks are experiencing changes in climate through extreme trends in temperature, precipitation, or early onset of spring. Glaciers are melting in Olympic, intensified wildfires are ravaging Yosemite and coastal park sites like Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad are experiencing rising sea levels.

Image Credit: Diliff, Wikipedia,  CC BY-SA 3.0 
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About the Author

Hello, I have been writing online for some time, and enjoy the outdoors. If you like, you can follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/JakeRsol

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