NPS Profile: Air above & beyond the Smokies

Issue 5 > NPS Profile page 1 > page 2
Cove Mountain tower, from below.

Looking up at Cove Mountain tower's first two flights of stairs, from below.

NPS photo.

Jim Renfro, Air Quality Specialist, and Russell Paulk, Air Quality Technician, are in charge of monitoring the air at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Every day, they drive, hike, and climb to air quality monitoring and research stations throughout the park. Their program tells us how clean our air is each day and how it has changed over many years.

Russell treks eleven miles round trip to the Cove Mountain Tower on the northern boundary of the park. Once he gets there, he ascends four flights of narrow stairs, and swings open three wide hatches to climb to the top 80 feet in the air. The tower shudders slightly in the wind. From its highest deck, he can see the forests on the mountainsides unfurled below. To the north, the land tapers to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in the Tennessee Valley, and to the south, the mountains climb successive ridges of the Smoky Mountains and Blue Ridge beyond.

At the Look Rock tower.

Russell Paulk checks a sensor at the Cove Mountain Tower, with views of the park behind him.

NPS photo.

But Russell isn’t here just to admire the view. At the top, he carefully checks each of the sensors to make sure they are operating correctly:

  • Wind speed & direction
  • Temperature
  • Relative humidity
  • Barometric pressure
  • Precipitation amount
  • Sulfur dioxide (SO2)
  • Ozone (ground-level, different from the protective, high-elevation stratospheric ozone layer)

Once that’s done, Russell steps down the ladder to the second level of the tower. Here in a tiny room are humming instruments busily recording air quality and weather conditions. Russell recalibrates each of the instruments to ensure that they are giving accurate readings. Not infrequently, they stop working or send readings that clearly aren’t right: during a storm last winter, the thermometer said the temperature dropped to -150 degrees. Because we don’t see temperatures like that on Earth, Russell knew this was a sign he had to make an extra trek up the mountain and check on the tower’s instruments.

Jim Renfro on a snowy day outside the Look Rock tower.

Air quality specialist Jim Renfro outside the Look Rock Tower on a snowy day.

NPS photo.

Jim Renfro and Russell Paulk must visit all of the air quality monitoring stations at least once a week, and more often if something goes wrong. Often, what goes wrong is a cold snap, an ice storm, or a particularly windy day, which cuts off power or communications to the stations. Jim and Russell have only a few hours to reset the instruments when that happens, which makes for some long days. At the Clingmans Dome tower this summer, a bird perched on the funnel rim of the mercury instrument and dropped its prey—a live salamander—down the tube. Jim Renfro was surprised to find this hungry creature starting up at him, still wedged there when he came to collect the mercury sample. He let it scamper away and took the sample of bottled water—the rain and cloud water that has dripped there all week—back to the office. A laboratory in Seattle analyzes these mercury samples and reports how much falls on our park’s sensitive ecosystems over time. Scientists at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign analyze other air data.

Click here for photos of air quality monitoring towers, and to learn what each measures.


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