Series: Park Air Profiles

Park Air Profiles - Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Peak and Lake Helen in Lassen Volcanic NP
Visitors come to Lassen Volcanic NP to enjoy scenic views of unique geology, lakes, and volcanic land forms.

Air quality at Lassen Volcanic National Park

Most visitors expect clean air and clear views in parks. Lassen Volcanic National Park (NP), California, well known for volcanic landforms and interesting geology, lies downwind of the populated Sacramento Valley and areas of agriculture and manufacturing. Air pollutants blown into the park can harm natural and scenic resources such as surface waters, plants, and visibility. The National Park Service works to address air pollution effects at Lassen Volcanic NP, and in parks across the U.S., through science, policy and planning, and by doing our part.

Nitrogen and sulfur

Nitrogen and sulfur compounds deposited from the air may have harmful effects, including acidification, of soils, lakes, ponds, and streams. High elevation lakes and ecosystems at the park are particularly sensitive to nitrogen and sulfur deposition. These systems receive more deposition than lower elevation areas because of greater amounts of snow and rain. Additionally, short growing seasons and shallow soils limit the capacity of soils and plants to buffer or absorb nitrogen and sulfur. Acidification can alter lake and stream diversity and cause loss of sensitive macroinvertebrates and fish (Sullivan et al. 2011a; Sullivan et al. 2011b). Some plants are more sensitive to acidification than others, search for acid-sensitive plant species found at Lassen Volcanic NP.

Volcanic formations at Lassen Volcanic NP, including boiling mud pots and fumaroles, naturally emit sulfur compounds such as sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. Concentrations of sulfur from volcanic emissions are relatively low and are not known to cause acidification on sensitive resources like high elevation lakes.

Nitrogen deposition may also disrupt soil nutrient cycling and alter grassland and meadow plant communities at the park (Sullivan et al. 2011c; Sullivan et al. 2011d). In some areas of the country, increased nitrogen deposition has allowed weedy annual grasses to invade shrublands and grasslands, replacing native plants that evolved under nitrogen-poor conditions. In southern California, increased nitrogen deposition has contributed to invasions of annual grasses that have subsequently increased fire risk in shrublands at Joshua Tree NP (Rao et al. 2010).

Healthy ecosystems can naturally buffer a certain amount of pollution, but as nitrogen and sulfur accumulate, a threshold is passed where the ecosystem is harmed. “Critical load” is a term used to describe the amount of pollution above which harmful changes in sensitive ecosystems occur (Porter 2005). Nitrogen deposition exceeds the critical load for one or more park ecosystems (NPS ARD 2018).

Visit the NPS air quality conditions and trends website for park-specific nitrogen and sulfur deposition information. Lassen Volcanic NP has been monitoring nitrogen and sulfur deposition since 2000. Explore air monitoring »

Mercury and toxics

Airborne mercury, and other toxic air contaminants, when deposited are known to harm birds, salamanders, fish and other wildlife, and cause human health concerns. 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 and toxics effects:

  • Presence of mercury in high elevation lakes in the park (Krabbenhoft et al. 2002).
  • Concentrations of mercury in fish at three lakes in the park ranged from low to high. Mercury concentrations were lowest in fish from Summit Lake. Fish from Ridge Lake and Horseshoe Lake had concentrations above the mean for all fish across 19 western national parks (Eagles-Smith et al. 2014).
  • Elevated concentrations of combustion by-products (PAHs), current-use pesticides (endosulfans, dacthal), and historic-use pesticides (DDTs, HCB) found in park air and vegetation samples (Landers et al. 2010; Landers et al. 2008)
  • High concentrations of dacthal in park fish (Flanagan Pritz et al 2014).
  • Current-use pesticides (chlorpyrifos, dacthal, endosulfans) are particularly high in fish from parks in the Sierra Nevada (including Lassen Volcanic NP) compared to levels in fish from parks in Alaska and the Cascades (Flanagan Pritz et al 2014).
  • Low frequency of intersex fish (the presence of both male and female reproductive structures in the same fish) found in the park, which indicates minimal exposure to contaminants (Schreck and Kent 2013).
  • Through the Dragonfly Mercury Project, dragonfly larvae have been collected by citizen scientists at the park and analyzed for mercury. See project results.

Ground-level ozone

Ponderosa Pine tree Ponderosa Pine trees are one of the ozone sensitive species found at Lassen Volcanic 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. In addition to the local and regional influence of ozone, research indicates global background ozone levels and nearby fires impact ozone exposures at the park (Jaffe et al. 2003; Jaffe et al. 2008).

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. Assessments conducted in the late 1990’s discovered foliar ozone injury on greater than 25% of the Pinus jeffreyi (Jeffrey pine) and Pinus ponderosa (ponderosa pine) trees sampled in the park (Arbaugh et al. 1998). More recently, the U.S. Forest Service has found ozone injury on trees examined near the park in Lassen County (Campbell et al. 2007). Other plants sensitive to ozone include Populus tremuloides (quaking aspen) and Populus trichocarpa (black cottonwood). Search ozone-sensitive plant species found at Lassen Volcanic NP.

Visit the NPS air quality conditions and trends website for park-specific ozone information. Lassen Volcanic NP has been monitoring ozone since 1987. Check out the live ozone and meteorology data from Lassen Volcanic NP and explore air monitoring »

Visibility

Kings Creek Meadow Fall in Lassen Volcanic NP Clean, clear air is essential to appreciating the scenic vistas at Lassen Volcanic NP.

Visitors come to Lassen Volcanic NP to enjoy spectacular volcanic landforms and relatively undisturbed natural resources, including forests, lakes, and streams. 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 park visibility on clearest days have been documented since the 1990’s. However, no significant trends have occurred on haziest days and visibility in the park still needs improvement to reach the Clean Air Act goal of no human caused impairment.

Visibility effects:
  • Reduction of the average natural visual range from about 165 miles (without pollution) to about 130 miles because of pollution at the park
  • Reduction of the visual range to below 70 miles on high pollution days

Explore scenic vistas through live webcams at Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Visit the NPS air quality conditions and trends website for park-specific visibility information. Lassen Volcanic National Park has been monitoring visibility since 1988. Explore air monitoring »

Arbaugh, M. J., Miller, P. R., Carroll, J. J., Takemoto, B., and Procter, T. 1998. Relationships of ozone exposure to pine injury in the Sierra Nevada and San Bernardino Mountains of California, USA. Environ. Pollut. 101: 291–301.

Campbell, S. J., Wanek, R., Coulston, J. W. 2007. Ozone injury in west coast forests: 6 years of monitoring. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-722. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 53 p. Available at https://www.fs.usda.gov/treesearch/pubs/27926

Davis, J. A., Melwani A. R., Bezalel S. N., Hunt J. A., Ichikawa G., Bonnema A., Heim W. A., Crane D., Swenson S., Lamerdin C., and Stephenson M. 2009. Contaminants in Fish from California Lakes and Reservoirs: Technical Report on Year One of a Two-Year Screening Survey. A Report of the Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program (SWAMP). California State Water Resources Control Board, Sacramento, CA.

Eagles-Smith, C.A., J.J. Willacker, and C.M.Flanagan Pritz. 2014. Mercury in fishes from 21 national parks in the Western United States—Inter and intra-park variation in concentrations and ecological risk: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2014-1051, 54 p. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.3133/ofr20141051.

Fenn, M. E., Allen, E. B., Weiss, S. B., Jovan, S., Geiser, L. H., Tonnesen, G. S., Johnson, R. F., Rao, L. E., Gimeno, B. S., Yuan, F., Meixner, T., Bytnerowicz, A. 2010. Nitrogen critical loads and management alternatives for N-impacted ecosystems in California. Journal of Environmental Management 91 (12): 2404–2423.

Flanagan Pritz, C. M., J. E. Schrlau, S. L. Massey Simonich, T. F. Blett. 2014. Contaminants of Emerging Concern in Fish from Western U.S. and Alaskan National Parks – Spatial Distribution and Health Thresholds. Journal of American Water Resources Association 50 (2): 309–323. Available at https://irma.nps.gov/App/Reference/Profile/2210538.

Jaffe, D., Chand, D., Hafner, W., Westerling, A., and Spracklen, D. 2008. Influence of fires on O-3 concentrations in the western US. Environmental Science & Technology 42 (16): 5885–5891.

Jaffe, D., Price, H., Parrish, D., Goldstein, A., and Harris, J. 2003. Increasing background ozone during spring on the west coast of North America. Geophysical Research Letters 30 (12): 1613.

Krabbenhoft, D. P., Olson, M. L., Dewild, J. F., Clow, D. W., Striegl, R. G., Dornblaser, M. M., and VanMetre, P. 2002. Mercury loading and methylmercury production and cycling in high-altitude lakes from the western United States. Water, Air, and Soil Pollution, Focus 2: 233–249.

Kohut R.J. 2007. Ozone Risk Assessment for Vital Signs Monitoring Networks, Appalachian National Scenic Trail, and Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail. NPS/NRPC/ARD/NRTR—2007/001. National Park Service. Fort Collins, Colorado. Available at https://www.nps.gov/articles/ozone-risk-assessment.htm

Landers, D. H., Simonich, S. M., Jaffe, D., Geiser, L., Campbell, D. H., Schwindt, A., Schreck, C., Kent, M., Hafner, W., Taylor, H. E., Hageman, K., Usenko, S., Ackerman, L., Schrlau, J., Rose, N., Blett, T., Erway, M. M. 2010. The Western Airborne Contaminant Assessment Project (WACAP): An Interdisciplinary Evaluation of the Impacts of Airborne Contaminants in Western U.S. National Parks. Environmental Science and Technology 44: 855–859.

Landers, D. H., S. L. Simonich, D. A. Jaffe, L. H. Geiser, D. H. Campbell, A. R. Schwindt, C. B. Schreck, M. L. Kent, W. D. Hafner, H. E. Taylor, K. J. Hageman, S. Usenko, L. K. Ackerman, J. E. Schrlau, N. L. Rose, T. F. Blett, and M. M. Erway. 2008. The Fate, Transport, and Ecological Impacts of Airborne Contaminants in Western National Parks (USA). EPA/600/R—07/138. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Research and Development, NHEERL, Western Ecology Division, Corvallis, Oregon. Available at https://irma.nps.gov/DataStore/Reference/Profile/660829.

[NADP] National Atmospheric Deposition Program. 2010. National Atmospheric Deposition Program 2009 Annual Summary. NADP Data Report 2010-01. Illinois State Water Survey, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL.

Porter, E., Blett, T., Potter, D.U., Huber, C. 2005. Protecting resources on federal lands: Implications of critical loads for atmospheric deposition of nitrogen and sulfur. BioScience 55(7): 603–612. https://doi.org/10.1641/0006-3568(2005)055[0603:PROFLI]2.0.CO;2

Rao, L. E., Allen, E. B., Meixner, T. 2010. Risk-based determination of critical nitrogen deposition loads for fire spread in southern California deserts. Ecological Applications 20 (5): 1320–1335.

Saros, J. E., Clow, D. W., Blett, T., Wolfe, A. P. 2011. Critical nitrogen deposition loads in high-elevation lakes of the western U.S. inferred from paleolimnological records. Water, Air, and Soil Pollution 216(1–4): 193–202.

Schreck, C.B. and M. Kent. 2013. Extent of Endocrine Disruption in Fish of Western and Alaskan National Parks. NPS-OSU Task Agreement J8W07080024. NPS Final Report, 72 pp.

Sullivan, T. J., McPherson, G. T., McDonnell, T. C., Mackey, S. D., Moore, D. 2011a. Evaluation of the sensitivity of inventory and monitoring national parks to acidification effects from atmospheric sulfur and nitrogen deposition: main report. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/ARD/NRR—2011/349. National Park Service, Denver, Colorado. Available at https://www.nps.gov/articles/acidification-risk-assessment.htm

Sullivan, T. J., McPherson, G. T., McDonnell, T. C., Mackey, S. D., Moore, D. 2011b. Evaluation of the sensitivity of inventory and monitoring national parks to acidification effects from atmospheric sulfur and nitrogen deposition: Klamath Network (KLMN). Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/ARD/NRR—2011/360. National Park Service, Denver, Colorado. Available at https://irma.nps.gov/DataStore/Reference/Profile/2170588

Sullivan, T. J., McDonnell, T. C., McPherson, G. T., Mackey, S. D., Moore, D. 2011c Evaluation of the sensitivity of inventory and monitoring national parks to nutrient enrichment effects from atmospheric nitrogen deposition: main report. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/ARD/NRR—2011/313. National Park Service, Denver, Colorado. Available at https://www.nps.gov/articles/nitrogen-risk-assessment.htm

Sullivan, T. J., McDonnell, T. C., McPherson, G. T., Mackey, S. D., Moore, D. 2011d. Evaluation of the sensitivity of inventory and monitoring national parks to nutrient enrichment effects from atmospheric nitrogen deposition: Klamath Network (KLMN). Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/ARD/NRR—2011/330. National Park Service, Denver, Colorado. Available at https://irma.nps.gov/DataStore/Reference/Profile/2168683

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

Last updated: June 27, 2018