With summer nearly here, I recently started considering making a few visits to a couple of the big national parks out west. And as an air quality scientist, one of the very first things I looked into was the pollution levels in and around some of the largest parks. Needless to say, what I found was rather surprising. According to the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), approximately 85 percent of the nation’s 417 national parks are dealing with unhealthy air conditions. These poor air conditions have also led to everything from hazier skies to damages to sensitive species and habitats. As such, this is a serious and significant matter for nearly all of the national parks in the country, given that these parks are annually visited by millions of Americans, thus leaving them at risk of unexpected respiratory problems, along with the obstruction of landmarks and wonders within said parks due to the decreased visibility.
While no park is the same, a large portion of the nation’s 417 parks are found in the West. This region has experienced significant population growth in recent decades, with cities like Phoenix and Denver outpacing the growth of cities back East. This demographic shift in population centers increasing in size in the West has retroactively led to more emission sources, ranging from newer coal plants to greater vehicle emissions owing to more cars in the region. The release of various pollutants, ranging from nitrous oxides and ozone, all effectively are introduced into the atmosphere and are dispersed with respect to wind patterns in a given area. Poor air quality in the west is further enhanced by the Rocky Mountains, which serve as natural barriers that can help to either entrap pollutants or change their trajectories and then advect (move) them to areas that are downstream of their original pollution source. The increase in anthropogenic (man-made) emissions is just one of many variables that are at play in the overall decrease in air quality in recent years. Another major factor is the overall shift in the amount of wildfires that have occurred due in large part to Climate Change. At their core, wildfires release large amounts of particulates into the atmosphere, decreasing air quality across areas as they spread and are transported by upper-level winds. These natural disasters become more frequent and last longer than they have in the past, the west will have to deal not only with more damage and destruction from said wildfires, but also from the negative secondary effects caused by more particulates being released into the air.
Source: Yahoo News
Given the decrease in air quality in several of the cities in the West, it comes to no surprise that all of that pollution eventually bleeds into many of the national parks in the region. As such, many visitors from those urban centers who may be visiting said parks to escape the air pollution for a few days tend to be surprised to find that those same conditions have made their way to their vacation destinations. Furthermore, as climate change alters the intensity and length of wildfires, destruction caused by said fires will also be a major concern that national parks in the West will have to deal with as well.
With all of this in mind, the real question becomes: what can we do to preserve our national parks and prepare them for the challenges that lie ahead in the coming decades? We can start by acknowledging that there is a significant air quality problem in our national parks that stems from pollution sources in our urban centers. At the local and community level, people can try to reduce their carbon footprints by finding alternative modes of getting around, such as public transit, or by opting in to getting their electricity from more renewable sources like wind or solar power. We can further reduce our pollution levels by demanding for more alternative forms of fuel and more public transportation, and legislating for such things. All in all, it may seem like a daunting task, we need only look back to Theodore Roosevelt, who once said "I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us." Indeed, if we don’t work to decrease our pollution output and find ways to mitigate the effects of climate change, these wonderful national parks that we have inherited may not be the same national parks we leave behind for the next generation.
© 2019 Meteorologist Gerardo Diaz Jr.
NPCA Parks Report 2019: https://www.npca.org/reports/air-climate-report/
Global Citizen: https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/national-parks-air-pollution/