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Park Air Profiles - Mount Rainier National Park

Air Quality at Mount Rainier National Park

Most visitors expect clean air and clear views in parks. Mount Rainier National Park (NP), Washington, is home to one of the most iconic peaks in the U.S., an active volcano that supplies the headwaters for five major rivers. The park is also downwind of mobile and stationary pollutant sources, including the Puget Sound urban zone, agricultural areas, industry, and coal-burning power production. In addition, pollutants traveling across the Pacific Ocean from Asia, and pollutants from Europe and eastern North America that circumnavigate the globe, are deposited in lakes, streams, and on land at high elevations in the Cascade mountain range. The National Park Service works to address air pollution effects at Mount Rainier NP, and in parks across the U.S., through science, policy and planning, and by doing our part.

Nitrogen and Sulfur

A park ranger leading a group of students in Mount Rainier NP
Visitors come to Mount Rainier NP to enjoy scenic views of ancient forests, wildflower meadows, and Mount Rainier, a glaciated, iconic mountain and active volcano.

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 Mount Rainier National Park (MORA) 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 MORA 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 MORA ranged from 1.8 to 3.2 kg-N ha-1 yr-1 and total S deposition ranged from 0.9 to 1.8 kg-S ha-1 yr-1 based on the TDep model (NADP, 2018). MORA has been monitoring atmospheric N and S deposition since 1999, 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 15% of the land area in MORA 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-1yr-1) and the critical load of N for alpine soil nitrate leaching (alpine soil critical load = 10 kg-N ha-1yr-1; Bowman et al., 2012). They found that deposition exceeded the alpine plant critical load in 81% of the park’s alpine area, but was below the alpine soil critical load throughout the park’s entire alpine area.

Additional N and S Research:

  • Elevated and increasing concentrations of ammonium, a N compound that often comes from agriculture, in deposition (NPS 2010)
  • Elevated concentrations of acidic compounds in precipitation, compared to background levels at nearby Olympic NP (Nieber et al. 2009)
  • Spring snowmelt, late summer storms, or rain-on-snow can cause highly acidic deposition events that are harmful to aquatic life and amphibians (Clow and Campbell 2008)
  • Episodic acidification of Eunice Lake, one of many lakes in MORA sensitive to acidification (Samora and Clow 2002)

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 625 km2 (65.3%) of the land area of Mount Rainier National Park.

  • N deposition exceeded the 3.1 kg-N ha-1 yr-1 critical load to protect N-sensitive lichen species richness in 6.3% of the forested area.
  • S deposition was below the 2.7 kg-S ha-1 yr-1 critical load to protect S-sensitive lichen species richness in every part 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, Mount Rainier National Park contains:

  • 7 N-sensitive tree species and 26 N-sensitive herbaceous species.
  • 7 S-sensitive tree species and 18 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 Mount Rainier NP exceeded health thresholds for bird and fish toxicity, and human consumption in 1%, 15%, and 2% of fish sampled, respectively (Eagles-Smith et al. 2014). Fish (torrent sculpin and brook, rainbow, and cutthroat trout) were sampled and analyzed for mercury from 17 sites at the park and compared to data across 21 western parks; the average fish mercury concentration (71.5 ng/g ww) was slightly lower than the study-wide mean (77.7 ng/g ww). The data may not reflect the risk at other unsampled locations in the park.
  • Levels of dieldrin and/or p,p′-DDE in fish exceeded the human health threshold for subsistence fish consumption in some water bodies (Landers et al. 2010; Ackerman et al. 2008; Landers et al. 2008). Elevated mercury and toxic contaminant levels in fish are associated with tissue damage and changes in metabolic, endocrine, and immune-related genes (Schwindt et al. 2008; Moran et al. 2007).
  • 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 from the park had mercury concentrations at moderate or higher impairment levels. Dragonfly larvae have been sampled and analyzed for mercury from 21 sites in the park; 35% of the data fall into the moderate (100-300 ng/g dw) and 8% 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 may exceed the US EPA benchmark for protection of human health (Eagles-Smith et al. 2018, Eagles-Smith et al. 2020).
  • Mercury was found in songbird blood samples from the park. Overall songbird blood mercury levels at Mount Rainier were on average lower than currently known effect levels (0.35 ppm), although some individuals (Varied Thrush) exceeded that threshold (Adams et al. 2013).
  • Related studies also found mercury and other contaminants in park fish, snow, sediment, and vegetation. Contaminants include trace metals, current-use pesticides, historic-use pesticides, combustion byproducts, and industrial/urban use compounds (Flanagan Pritz et al. 2014; Hageman et al. 2006; Frenzel et al. 1990). Recent evidence suggests nearshore tree cover and fish diet account for the most variance in fish mercury at the park (Chiapella et al. 2021).

Visibility

Aurora lake and Mount Rainier
Clean, clear air is essential to appreciating the scenic vistas at Mount Rainier NP.

Many visitors come to Mount Rainier NP to enjoy stunning views of and from the fifth tallest peak in the contiguous 48 states, the highest in the chain of volcanoes comprising the Cascade Range. 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 have been documented since the 1990’s. Still, visibility in the park needs improvement to reach the Clean Air Act goal of no human caused impairment.

Understanding how air pollution travels and where it comes from is essential to successfully targeting reductions. Learn about PREVENT, the Pacific Northwest Regional Visibility Experiment Using Natural Tracers special study. This 1990 study investigated the contribution of emission sources to fine particle concentrations and regional haze.

Visibility effects:

  • Reduction of the average natural visual range from about 140 miles (without the effects of pollution) to about 110 miles because of pollution at the parks
  • Reduction of the visual range from about 105 miles to below 55 miles on high pollution days

Visit the NPS air quality conditions and trends website for park-specific visibility information. Mount Rainier NP has been monitoring visibility since 2000. Check out the live air quality webcam and explore air monitoring »

Ground-Level Ozone

Snowberry is one of the ozone sensitive species found at Mount Rainier NP.
Snowberry is one of the ozone sensitive species found at Mount Rainier 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. Ozone affecting Mount Rainier NP is transported primarily from the Puget Sound urban zone and via trans-Pacific air masses (Barna et al. 2000; Jaffe et al. 2003).

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. While several ozone-sensitive plants, including Lonicera involucrata (bearberry honeysuckle) and Salix scouleriana (Scouler's willow), have been evaluated, no ozone injury has been documented in the park (Brace et al. 1999). A risk assessment concluded that plants in at Mount Rainier NP are at low risk for ozone damage (Kohut 2007; Kohut 2004). Search ozone-sensitive plant species found at Mount Rainier NP.

Visit the NPS air quality conditions and trends website for park-specific ozone information. Mount Rainier NP has been monitoring ozone since 1998. Check out the live ozone and meteorology data from Mount Rainier NP and explore air monitoring »

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Part of a series of articles titled Park Air Profiles.

Mount Rainier National Park

Last updated: January 3, 2023