Air Quality at Acadia National Park
Most visitors expect clean air and good visibility in parks. However, Acadia National Park (NP), Maine, is downwind from large urban and industrial areas in the states to the south and west. Polluted air coming from these areas is trapped by the park’s steep slopes and high peaks. Over 30 years of air quality monitoring has shown that Acadia NP receives some of the highest levels of pollution in the northeastern U.S. Air pollution can harm ecosystems, scenic vistas, and public health. This is one of the most important environmental issues facing the park. The National Park Service works to address air pollution effects at Acadia NP, and in parks across the U.S., through science, policy and planning, and by doing our part.
Nitrogen and Sulfur
Nitrogen (N) and sulfur (S) compounds deposited from the air may have harmful effects on ecosystem processes. Healthy ecosystems can naturally buffer a certain amount of pollution, but once a threshold is passed the ecosystem may respond negatively. This threshold is the critical load, or the amount of pollution above which harmful changes in sensitive ecosystems occur (Porter 2005). N and S deposition change ecosystems through eutrophication (N deposition) and acidification (N + S deposition). Eutrophication increases soil and water nutrients which causes some species to grow more quickly and changes community composition. Ecosystem sensitivity to nutrient N enrichment at Acadia National Park (ACAD) relative to other national parks is low (Sullivan et al. 2016); for a full list of N sensitive ecosystem components, see: NPS ARD 2019. Acidification leaches important cations from soils, lakes, ponds, and streams which decreases habitat quality. Ecosystem sensitivity to acidification at ACAD relative to other national parks is very high (Sullivan et al. 2016); to search for acid-sensitive plant species, see: NPSpecies.
From 2017-2019 total N deposition in ACAD ranged from 3.0 to 3.2 kg-N ha-1 yr-1 and total S deposition ranged from 2.4 to 2.5 kg-S ha-1 yr-1 based on the TDep model (NADP, 2018). ACAD has been monitoring atmospheric N and S deposition since 1981, see the conditions and trends website for park-specific information.
Surface waters and vegetation on ACAD’s high peaks and steep slopes with shallow soils and resistant bedrock that is unable to buffer excess acids are particularly sensitive.Additional N and S Research:
- Annual average precipitation is 3 times more acidic than unpolluted rain. Measured pH ranges from 4.8 to 5.2 (NADP 2018)
- Decline in red spruce at sites with both acid fog and acid rain (Jiang and Jagels 1999)
- Acid fog limits lichen growth on maple and spruce trees (Cleavitt et al. 2011)
- Episodic acidification in park streams following precipitation events, with pH values as low as 4.7 (Kahl et al. 1992; Heath et al. 1993)
- Chronic acidification of Sargent Mountain Pond (Kahl et al 2000)
- Long-term N and S deposition has acidified some streams and a lake in the park (Kahl et al. 1992) and caused high nitrate concentrations in streams (Johnson et al. 2007; Nelson et al. 2008)
- Elevated N concentrations in some park streams (Johnson et al. 2007; Nelson et al. 2008) suggests that forest soils are saturated with N (Vaux et al. 2008)
- Algal growth and community composition in Jordan Pond and Echo Lake have not changed in response to 20th century or current N deposition (Saros et al. 2014, Daggett et al. 2015)
Epiphytic macrolichen community responses
Epiphytic macrolichens grow on tree trunks, branches, and boles. Since these lichens grow above the ground, they obtain all their nutrients directly from precipitation and the air. Many epiphytic lichen species have narrow environmental niches and are extremely sensitive to changes in air pollution. Geiser et al. (2019) used a U.S. Forest Service national survey to develop critical loads of nitrogen (N) and critical loads of sulfur (S) to prevent more than a 20% decline in four lichen community metrics: total species richness, pollution sensitive species richness, forage lichen abundance, and cyanolichen abundance.
McCoy et al. (2021) used forested area from the National Land Cover Database to estimate the impact of air pollution on epiphytic lichen communities. Forested area makes up 121 km2 (79.5%) of the land area of Acadia National Park.
- N deposition exceeded the 3.1 kg-N ha-1 yr-1 critical load to protect N-sensitive lichen species richness in 0.2% of the forested area.
- S deposition exceeded the 2.7 kg-S ha-1 yr-1 critical load to protect S-sensitive lichen species richness in 0.4% of the forested area.
For exceedances of other lichen metrics and the predicted decline of lichen communities see Appendices A and B of McCoy et al. (2021).
Additional modeling was done on 459 lichen species to test the combined effects of air pollution and climate gradients (Geiser et al. 2021). A critical load indicative of initial shifts from pollution-sensitive toward pollution-tolerant species occurred at 1.5 kg-N ha-1 yr-1 and 2.7 kg-S ha-1 yr-1 even under changing climate regimes.
Plant species response
Plants vary in their tolerance of eutrophication and acidification, and some plant species respond to nitrogen (N) or sulfur (S) pollution with declines in growth, survival, or abundance on the landscape. Horn et al. (2018) used the U.S. Forest Service national forest survey to develop critical loads of N and critical loads of S to prevent declines in growth or survival of sensitive tree species. Clark et al. (2019) used a database of plant community surveys to develop critical loads of N and critical loads of S to prevent a decline in abundance of sensitive herbaceous plant species. According to NPSpecies, Acadia National Park contains:
- 17 N-sensitive tree species and 61 N-sensitive herbaceous species.
- 22 S-sensitive tree species and 48 S-sensitive herbaceous species.
Airborne mercury and other toxic air contaminants are known to harm birds, salamanders, fish, and other wildlife and cause human health concerns. These substances are deposited in park ecosystems, where they enter the food chain and accumulate in the tissue of organisms. This can cause reduced reproductive success, impaired growth and development, and decreased survival for park wildlife.
Mercury and air toxics effects:
- Mercury and other toxic air pollutants are elevated in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems at Acadia NP (Peckenham et al. 2007; Bank et al. 2007a, b; Longcore et al. 2007a, b)
- Mercury concentrations are elevated in park wildlife from all levels of the food chain, including fish, salamanders, tadpoles, loons, bald eagles, river otter, and mink (Bank et al. 2007a, b)
- Tree swallow chicks with higher mercury concentrations have slower growth rates (Longcore et al. 2007a, b)
- Certain fish (golden shiners) have increased vulnerability to predation associated with higher levels of mercury in park waters (Webber and Haines 2003)
- Concentrations of mercury in fish from the park exceed statewide freshwater fish consumption thresholds (EPA 2010)
- Levels of mercury in fish exceed safe consumption thresholds for humans and fish-eating wildlife such as loons (Haines et al. 2000)
- Elevated concentrations of organochlorine contaminants like DDT in bald eagles may be affecting eagle reproduction in the park (Matz et al. 1998)
- Park streams and springs contain elevated levels of trace metals associated with vehicle exhaust. These metals include aluminium, zinc, copper, molybdenum, and arsenic (Peckenham et al. 2006)
Research at two Acadia NP watersheds indicate that landscape variables including soil pH, vegetation type, and land use history, influence how, and to what extend, mercury accumulates in ecosystems (Johnson et al. 2007).
The New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers (NEG/ECP) are addressing regional mercury concerns through a comprehensive Mercury Action Plan with emission reduction and pollution prevention goals (Smith and Trip 2005).
Acadia National Park has been monitoring mercury since 1996. Explore air monitoring »
- Reduction of the average natural visual range from about 110 miles (without the effects of pollution) to about 90 miles because of pollution at the park
- Reduction of the visual range from about 70 miles to below 50 miles on high pollution days;
- Human-caused haze frequently impairs scenic vistas at the park
Acadia National Park has been monitoring visibility since 1998. Explore air monitoring »
At ground level, ozone is harmful to human health and the environment. Ground-level ozone does not come directly from smokestacks or vehicles, but instead is formed when other pollutants, mainly nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, react in the presence of sunlight.
Over the course of a growing season, ozone can damage plant tissues making it harder for plants to produce and store food. It also weakens plants making them less resistant to disease and insect infestations. Some plants are more sensitive to ozone than others. Search ozone-sensitive plant species found at Acadia.
Ozone effects on vegetation:
- Dogbane and big-leaf aster plants are showing signs of ozone injury (Eckert et al. 1997)
- White pines experience reduced growth, as measured by tree rings (Bartholomay et al. 1997)
- Ground-level ozone at Acadia NP sometimes exceeds standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect public health and vegetation
Visit the NPS air quality conditions and trends website for park-specific ozone information. Acadia National Park has been monitoring ozone since 1995. Check out the live ozone and meteorology data from Acadia, NP and explore air monitoring »
Bank, M.S., Burgess, J., Evers, D. and Loftin, C. 2007a. Mercury contamination of biota from Acadia National Park, Maine: a review. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 126(1–3): 105–115.
Bank, M.S., Crocker, J., Connery, B. and Amirbahman, A. 2007b. Mercury bioaccumulation in green frog (Rana clamitans) and bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana) tadpoles from Acadia National Park, Maine, USA. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 26(1): 118–125.
Bartholomay, G.A., Eckert, R.T. and Smith, K.T. 1997. Reductions in tree-ring widths of white pine following ozone exposure at Acadia National Park, Maine, U.S.A. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 27: 361–368.
Clark, C.M., Simkin, S.M., Allen, E.B. et al. Potential vulnerability of 348 herbaceous species to atmospheric deposition of nitrogen and sulfur in the United States. Nat. Plants 5, 697–705 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-019-0442-8.
Cleavitt, N.L., Ewing, H.A., Weathers, K.C., and Lindsey, A.M. 2011. Acidic atmospheric deposition interacts with tree type and impacts the cryptogamic epiphytes in Acadia National Park, Maine, USA. Bryologist 114:570-582. https://doi.org/10.1639/0007-2745-114.3.570.
Daggett, C.T., Saros, J.E., Lafrancois, B.M., Simon, K.S., and Amirbahman, A. 2015. Effects of increased concentrations of inorganic nitrogen and dissolved organic matter on phytoplankton in boreal lakes with differing nutrient limitation patterns. Aquat Sci 77: 511-521. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s00027-015-0396-5.
Eckert, R., Kohut, R., Lee, T. and Stapelfeldt, K. 1997. Studies to assess the effects of ozone on native vegetation of Acadia National Park. 1996 Annual Report. University of New Hampshire and Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, Ithaca NY.
[EPA] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2010. 2008 National Listing of Fish Advisories. Available at https://www.epa.gov/fish-tech.
Geiser, Linda & Nelson, Peter & Jovan, Sarah & Root, Heather & Clark, Christopher. (2019). Assessing Ecological Risks from Atmospheric Deposition of Nitrogen and Sulfur to US Forests Using Epiphytic Macrolichens. Diversity. 11. 87. 10.3390/d11060087.
Geiser, Linda & Root, Heather & Smith, Robert & Jovan, Sarah & Clair, Larry & Dillman, Karen. (2021). Lichen-based critical loads for deposition of nitrogen and sulfur in US forests. Environmental Pollution. 291. 118187. 10.1016/j.envpol.2021.118187.
Haines, T., Webber, H., and Coyle, J. 2000. An assessment of contaminant threats at Acadia National Park. National Park Service. 74 pp.
Heath, R.H., Kahl, J.S., Norton, S.A. and Brutsaert, W.R. 1993. Elemental mass balances and episodic and ten–year changes in the chemistry of surface water, Acadia National Park, Maine: final report. Technical Report NPS/NAROSS/NRTR—93/16. National Park Service, North Atlantic Region, Boston, Massachusetts. 111 pp.
Horn KJ, Thomas RQ, Clark CM, Pardo LH, Fenn ME, Lawrence GB, et al. (2018) Growth and survival relationships of 71 tree species with nitrogen and sulfur deposition across the conterminous U.S.. PLoS ONE 13(10): e0205296. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0205296.
Jiang, M. and Jagels, R. 1999. Detection and quantification of changes in membrane–associated calcium in red spruce saplings exposed to acid fog. Tree Physiology 19: 909–916.
Johnson, K.B., Haines, T. A., Kahl, J.S., Norton, S.A., Amirbahman, A. and Sheehan, K.D. 2007. Controls on mercury and methylmercury deposition for two watersheds in Acadia National Park, Maine. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 126: 55–67.
Kahl, J.S., Manski, D., Flora, M. and Houtman, N. 2000. Water Resources Management Plan, Acadia National Park. National Park Service. 103 pp.
Kahl, J.S., Norton, S.A., Haines, T.A., Rochette, E.A., Heath, R.H. and Nodvin, S.C. 1992. Mechanisms of episodic acidification in low–order streams in Maine, USA. Environmental Pollution 78: 37–44.
Longcore, J.R., Dineli, R. and Haines, T.A. 2007a. Mercury and Growth of Tree Swallows at Acadia National Park, and at Orono, Maine, USA. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 126 (1–3): 117–127.
Longcore, J.R., Haines, T.A. and Halteman, W.A. 2007b. Mercury in Tree Swallow Food, Eggs, Bodies, and Feathers at Acadia National Park, Maine, and an EPA Superfund Site, Ayer, Massachusetts. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 126 (1–3): 129–143.
Matz, A.C., Gilbert, J.R., and O’Connell, A.F. 1998. Acadia’s Bald Eagles: research summary and management recommendations. National Park Service. Boston, MA.
McCoy K., M. D. Bell, and E. Felker-Quinn. 2021. Risk to epiphytic lichen communities in NPS units from atmospheric nitrogen and sulfur pollution: Changes in critical load exceedances from 2001‒2016. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/ARD/NRR—2021/2299. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado. https://doi.org/10.36967/nrr-2287254.
[NADP] National Atmospheric Deposition Program. 2018. NTN Data. Accessed January 20, 2022. Available at http://nadp.slh.wisc.edu/NADP/.
Nelson, S.J., Johnson, K.B., Weathers, K.C., Loftin, C.S., Fernandez, I.J., Kahl, J.S. and Krabbenhoft, D.P. 2008. A comparison of winter mercury accumulation at forested and no canopy sites measured with different snow sampling techniques. Applied Geochemistry 23(3): 384–398.
Peckenham, J.M., Kahl, J.S. and Amirbahman, A. 2006. The impact of vehicular traffic on water quality in Acadia National Park. Technical report NPS/NER/NRTR–2006/035. National Park Service, Boston, MA.
Peckenham, J.M., Kahl, J.S., Nelson, S.J., Johnson, K.B. and Haines, T.A. 2007. Landscape Controls on Mercury in Streamwater at Acadia National Park, USA. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 126(1–3): 97–104.
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Saros, J. E. 2014. Determining critical nitrogen loads to boreal lake ecosystems: The response of phytoplankton at Acadia and Isle Royale National Parks. Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/ACAD/NRTR—2014/862. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado. https://irma.nps.gov/DataStore/Reference/Profile/2209241.
Smith, C.M. and Trip, L.J. 2005. Mercury Policy and Science in Northeastern North America: The Mercury Action Plan of the New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers. Ecotoxicology 14: 19–35.
Sullivan T.J. 2016. Air quality related values (AQRVs) in national parks: Effects from ozone; visibility reducing particles; and atmospheric deposition of acids, nutrients and toxics. Natural Resource Report. NPS/NRSS/ARD/NRR—2016/1196. National Park Service. Fort Collins, Colorado. Available at https://www.nps.gov/articles/aqrv-assessment.htm.
Vaux, P.D., Nelson, S.J., Rajakaruna, N., Mittelhauser, G., Bell, K., Kopp, B., Peckenham, J., and Longsworth, G. 2008. Assessment of natural resource conditions in and adjacent to Acadia National Park, Maine. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/WRD/NRR—2008/069. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado. Available at https://irma.nps.gov/DataStore/Reference/Profile/2179608.
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