Understanding air pollution

Excellent visibility at 150 miles.

On an excellent visibility day in the Smokies, you can see over 150 miles.

NPS photo.

The problem of air pollution is worldwide. It results from humans burning fossil fuels and sources of carbon, including coal, oil, gasoline, shale, and wood. In the Smokies, most of our air pollution comes from human activities outside the park.

Read more about pollution, including ozone and the sulfur, nitrogen, carbon, and mercury that come from burning fossil fuels, then use the back arrow on your browser to return to this page.

Our air quality program grew throughout the 1980s to become the full-fledged monitoring program that it is today. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, national parks were just starting to take part in the new National Acid Deposition Program (NADP). All along the Appalachian range—from the southern end in the Smokies to its northern reaches in New York’s Adirondack mountains, people could see the problems of acid rain killing fish in remote lakes and eating away stone structures and statues.

Average summer visibility is 17 miles.

We rarely see the views shown above; on an average summer day, poor air quality restricts the view to 17 miles.

NPS photo.

To understand just what was happening in protected areas, the Smokies began monitoring how much air pollution is coming into the park at high and low elevations, and what impacts the air pollution had on plants, soil, and streams, and animals.

With the beginning of these programs, the Smokies became an example for other national parks. Soon many had their own air quality monitoring programs. Now, parks across the country monitor not only acid deposition (nitrogen and sulfur deposited in wet and dry form) but also weather conditions, visibility, ozone, fine particles, and mercury.

From their long-term monitoring, scientists could tell that the Great Smoky Mountains were receiving very high levels of acids and other pollutants. Their next step was to figure out how to make air clean again. That turns out to be a very big job.

Go on to Collaborating with researchers or return to Meet the Managers.

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