- Air quality at Mount Rainier National Park
- Related references
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
Nitrogen and sulfur compounds deposited from the air may have harmful effects, including acidification, on soils, lakes, ponds, and streams. High elevation ecosystems in the park are sensitive to nitrogen and sulfur deposition. These systems receive more atmospheric deposition than lower elevation areas because of greater amounts of snow and rain. In addition, short growing seasons and shallow soils limit the capacity of alpine soils, lakes, streams, and plants to absorb nitrogen.
Excess nitrogen can also lead to nutrient enrichment, a process that changes nutrient cycling and alters alpine, grassland, and wetland plant communities. 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). Ecosystems in the park were rated as having very high sensitivity to nutrient-enrichment effects relative to other national parks (Sullivan et al. 2011c; Sullivan et al. 2011d).
Nitrogen and sulfur effects:
- Elevated and increasing concentrations of ammonium, a nitrogen 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 the park sensitive to acidification (Samora and Clow 2002);
- The chemistry of cloud water samples taken at the park indicate some of the highest levels of acidity in the state (Basabe et al. 1989a).
- Several acid-sensitive plant species are found at Mount Rainier NP.
- 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. Mount Rainier NP has been monitoring nitrogen and sulfur deposition since 1999, 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. Toxic air pollutants from Europe and Asia remain airborne for thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean and deposit in snow at relatively high elevations in North America, including at Mount Rainier NP. Air toxics also originate from local and regional sources.
Mercury and toxics effects:
- Presence of contaminants including mercury, current-use pesticides, historic-use pesticides, and industrial by-products in snow, sediment, vegetation, and fish (Frenzel et al. 1990; Hageman et al. 2006; Moran et al. 2007; Landers et al. 2010; Landers et al. 2008);
- Levels of the pesticide dieldrin in fish that exceed safe consumption thresholds for human health (Ackerman et al. 2008; Landers et al. 2010; Landers et al. 2008);
- Mercury concentrations in fish are among the highest of eight national parks studied, exceeding safe consumption thresholds for wildlife and humans. These levels are associated with tissue damage in the kidneys and spleens of fish (Landers et al. 2010; Landers et al. 2008; Schwindt et al. 2008);
- Fish from lakes with elevated mercury and toxic contaminant levels in Mount Rainier NP displayed changes in metabolic, endocrine, and immune-related genes, compared to fish from uncontaminated lakes (Moran et al. 2007);
- Eleven park lakes sampled for fish mercury levels had at least one fish sample above the State of Washington mercury consumption advisory level for sensitive human populations (Haines et al. 2000).
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 »
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.
- 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 »
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Sullivan, T. J., McDonnell, T. C., McPherson, G. T., Mackey, S. D., Moore, D. 2011a. 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. 2011b. Evaluation of the sensitivity of inventory and monitoring national parks to nutrient enrichment effects from atmospheric nitrogen deposition: North Coast and Cascades Network (NCCN). Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/ARD/NRR—2011/330. National Park Service, Denver, Colorado. Available at https://irma.nps.gov/DataStore/Reference/Profile/2168709
Sullivan, T. J., McPherson, G. T., McDonnell, T. C., Mackey, S. D., Moore, D. 2011c. 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. 2011d. Evaluation of the sensitivity of inventory and monitoring national parks to acidification effects from atmospheric sulfur and nitrogen deposition: North Coast and Cascades Network (NCCN). Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/ARD/NRR—2011/360. National Park Service, Denver, Colorado. Available at https://irma.nps.gov/DataStore/Reference/Profile/2170593
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: August 2, 2018