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Park Air Profiles - Grand Teton National Park

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Air Quality at Grand Teton National Park

Most visitors expect clean air and clear views in parks. Grand Teton National Park (NP), Wyoming, is home to extraordinary wildlife, beautiful mountain lakes, and the dramatic alpine terrain of the Teton Range. The park has generally good air quality but is affected by air pollution from power plants, agricultural areas, industry, and oil and gas development. Pollutants emitted from these sources can harm the park’s natural and scenic resources such as surface waters, vegetation, fish, and visibility. The National Park Service works to address air pollution effects at Grand Teton NP, and in parks across the U.S., through science, policy and planning, and by doing our part.

Nitrogen and Sulfur

Park visitors ride a replica of Menor's Ferry along the Snake River in Grand Teton NP
Visitors come to Grand Teton NP to enjoy scenic views of the Teton mountain range, lakes, alpine terrain, and the Snake River.

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 Grand Teton National Park (GRTE) relative to other national parks is very high (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 GRTE 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 GRTE ranged from 3.4 to 7.2 kg-N ha-1 yr-1 and total S deposition ranged from 0.9 to 2.0 kg-S ha-1 yr-1 based on the TDep model (NADP, 2018). GRTE has been monitoring atmospheric N and S deposition since 2011, see the conditions and trends website for park-specific information.

Alpine ecosystem effects

Alpine environments are particularly vulnerable to large inputs of reactive nitrogen because of the sparse cover of vegetation, short growing seasons, large areas of exposed bedrock and talus, and snowmelt nutrient releases (Williams et al., 1996; Nanus et al., 2012). Approximately 17% of the land area in GRTE is alpine (~328 km2 above 1550 m). McClung et al. (2020) compared the 2015 estimated total N deposition (TDep; NADP, 2018) to the critical load of N for an increase in alpine sedge growth (alpine plant critical load = 3 kg-N ha-1 yr-1) and the critical load of N for alpine soil nitrate leaching (alpine soil critical load = 10 kg-N ha-1 yr-1; Bowman et al., 2012). They found that deposition exceeded the alpine plant critical load in 100% of the park’s alpine area, but was below the alpine soil critical load throughout the park’s entire alpine area.

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 399 km2 (31.8%) of the land area of Grand Teton National Park.

  • N deposition exceeded the 3.1 kg-N ha-1 yr-1 critical load to protect N-sensitive lichen species richness in every part 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 71.5% 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, Grand Teton National Park contains:

  • 4 N-sensitive tree species and 36 N-sensitive herbaceous species.
  • 5 S-sensitive tree species and 33 S-sensitive herbaceous species.

Persistent Pollutants

Pollutants like mercury and pesticides are concerning because they are persistent and toxic in the environment. These contaminants can travel in the air thousands of miles away from the source of pollution, even depositing in protected places like national parks. In addition, while some of these harmful pollutants may be banned from use, historically contaminated sites continue to endure negative environmental consequences.

When deposited, airborne mercury and other toxic air contaminants are known to harm wildlife like birds and fish, and cause human health concerns. Many of these substances enter the food chain and accumulate in the tissue of organisms causing reduced reproductive success, impaired growth and development, and decreased survival.

  • Mercury concentrations in fish sampled at Grand Teton NP did not exceed any known toxicity thresholds for fish, birds, or human consumption. Fish were analyzed for mercury from three sites at the park and compared to data across 21 western parks. The average fish mercury concentration (32.6 ng/g ww) was lower than the study-wide mean (77.7 ng/g ww). However, the data may not reflect the risk at other unsampled locations in the park (Eagles-Smith et al. 2014).
  • No fish sampled from the park were found to be intersex (Schreck and Kent 2013). Reproductive abnormalities such as intersex, the presence of both male and female reproductive structures in the same fish, can signify exposure to contaminants.
  • Some dragonfly larvae sampled at Grand Teton NP had mercury concentrations at high impairment levels. Dragonfly larvae have been sampled and analyzed for mercury from three sites in the park; 33% of the data fall into the high (300-700 ng/g dw) impairment categories for potential mercury risk. An index of moderate impairment or higher suggests some fish species may exceed the US EPA benchmark for protection of human health (Eagles-Smith et al. 2020, Eagles-Smith et al. 2018).
  • Mercury has been found in songbird blood samples from the park. No samples from Grand Teton NP had blood mercury levels that exceeded the currently known effect levels (0.35 ppm) in songbirds (Adams et al. 2013).
  • Mercury, pesticides, and other contaminants have been found in park air, water, snow, and vegetation. In 2021, the average mercury concentration found in snowpack was 1.71 ng/L at Garnet Canyon, 1.71 ng/L at Rendezvous Mountain, and 10.1 ng/L at Teton Pass (USGS 2021; Ingersoll et al. 2007). Pesticides and other contaminants were found in high-elevation lakes at Grand Teton, but concentrations did not exceed any known benchmarks for aquatic life (Keteles 2011; Krabbenhoft et al. 2002). Other related studies found that concentrations of current-use pesticides in air and vegetation samples were elevated compared to other western national parks (Landers et al. 2010; Landers et al. 2008).

Visibility

Scenic view of the Teton mountain range in Grand Teton NP
Clean, clear air is essential to appreciating the scenic vistas at Grand Teton NP.

Visitors come to Grand Teton NP to enjoy spectacular views of the windswept peaks of the Teton Range, mountain lakes, and the Jackson Hole valley floor. Park vistas are sometimes obscured by haze, reducing how well and how far people can see. Visibility reducing haze is caused by tiny particles in the air, and these particles can also affect human health. Many of the same pollutants that ultimately fall out as nitrogen and sulfur deposition contribute to this haze. Organic compounds, soot, and dust reduce visibility as well. Significant improvements in visibility on clearest days have been documented since the late 1980’s. However, no significant trends have occurred on haziest days and regional visibility still needs improvement to reach the Clean Air Act goal of no human caused impairment.

In the region, average natural visual range is reduced from about 180 miles (without the effects of pollution) to about 140 miles because of pollution. The visual range is reduced to below 75 miles on high pollution days.

Check out the live air quality webcam and visit the NPS air quality conditions and trends website for park-specific visibility information. The NPS has been monitoring visibility at Yellowstone NP, Wyoming since 1988, these data are considered representative of regional visibility conditions for Grand Teton NP.

Ground-Level Ozone

Dogbane plant
Spreading dogbane is one of the ozone sensitive species found at Grand Teton NP.

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. The low levels of ozone exposure at Grand Teton NP make the risk of foliar ozone injury to plants low (Kohut 2004). However, some plants are more sensitive to ozone than others. There are a few ozone-sensitive plants in Grand Teton NP including Populus tremuloides (quaking aspen), Apocynum androsaemifolium (spreading dogbane), and Salix scouleriana (Scouler’s willow). Search additional ozone-sensitive plant species found at Grand Teton NP.

Visit the NPS air quality conditions and trends website for park-specific ozone information. Grand Teton NP has been monitoring ozone since 2011. Check out the live ozone and meteorology data from Grand Teton NP and explore air monitoring »

[NADP] National Atmospheric Deposition Program. 2018. NTN Data. Accessed January 20, 2022. Available at http://nadp.slh.wisc.edu/NADP/

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Part of a series of articles titled Park Air Profiles.

Grand Teton National Park

Last updated: November 29, 2022