Series: Park Air Profiles

Park Air Profiles - Mount Rainier National Park

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.

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).

Ground-level ozone

Snowberry plant 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 »

Visibility

Lake Aurora and Mount Rainier in Mount Rainier NP 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 »

Ackerman, L. K., Schwindt, A. R., Massey Simonich S. L., Koch, D. C., Blett, T. F., Schreck, C. B., Kent, M. L., Landers, D. H. 2008. Atmospherically Deposited PBDEs, Pesticides, PCBs, and PAHs in Western U.S. National Park Fish: Concentrations and Consumption Guidelines. Environmental Science & Technology 42: 2334–2341.

Barna, M., Lamb, B., O’Neill, S., Westberg, H., Figueroa-Kaminsky, C. Otterson, S., Bowman, C., and DeMay, J. 2000. Modeling Ozone Formation and Transport in the Cascadia Region of the Pacific Northwest. Journal of Applied Meteorology 39: 349–366.

Basabe, F. A., Edmonds, R. L., Chang, W. L., and Larson, T. V. 1989a. Fog and cloudwater chemistry in Western Washington. In: Olson, R. K. and Lefohn, A. S. (eds.) Symposium on the effects of air pollution on western forests. June 1989. Anaheim, CA. Air and Waste Management Association. pp. 33–49.

Brace, S. and Peterson, D. L. 1998. Spatial Patterns of Tropospheric Ozone in the Mount Rainier Region of the Cascade Mountains, U.S.A. Atmospheric Environment 32 (21): 3629–3637.

Brace, S., Peterson, D. L., and Bowers, D. 1999. A guide to ozone injury in vascular plants of the Pacific Northwest. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR—446. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 63 pp.

Clow, D. W. and Campbell, D. H. 2008. Atmospheric deposition and surface-water chemistry in Mount Rainier and North Cascades National Parks, U.S.A., water years 2000 and 2005–2006: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2008–5152, 37 pp. Available at https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/sir20085152

Eilers, J. M., Rose, C. L., Sullivan, T. J. 1994. Status of Air Quality and Effects of Atmospheric Pollutants on Ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest Region of the National Park Service. NPS Final Report. 255 pp. Available at https://irma.nps.gov/DataStore/Reference/Profile/547259

Fenn, M., Geiser, L., Peterson, J., Waddell, E., and Porter, E. 2003. Why Federal Land Managers in the Northwest are Concerned about Nitrogen Emissions. National Park Service. 18 pp. Available at https://irma.nps.gov/DataStore/Reference/Profile/606872

Frenzel, R. W., Witmer, G. W. and Starkey, E. E. 1990. Heavy metal concentrations in a lichen of Mt. Rainier and Olympic National Parks, Washington, USA. Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 44 (1): 158–164.

Geiser, L. H., Jovan, S. E., Glavich, D. A., Porter, M. K. 2010. Lichen-based critical loads for atmospheric nitrogen deposition in Western Oregon and Washington Forests, USA. Environmental Pollution 158: 2412–2421.

Geiser, L. and Neitlich, P. 2007. Air pollution and climate gradients in western Oregon and Washington indicated by epiphytic macrolichens. Environmental Pollution 145: 203–218.

Hageman, K. J., Simonich, S. L., Campbell, D. H., Wilson, G. R., Landers, D. H. 2006. Atmospheric deposition of current-use and historic-use pesticides in snow at national parks in the Western United States. Environmental Science & Technology 40: 3174–3180.

Jaffe, D., McKendry, I., Anderson, T., Price, H. 2003. Six ‘new’ episodes of trans-Pacific transport of air pollutants. Atmos. Envir. 37: 391-404.

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.

Malm, W. C., Gebhart, K. A., Molenar, J., Eldred, R., Harrison, H. 1994. Pacific Northwest Regional Visibility Experiment Using Natural Tracers—PREVENT. National Park Service Final Report. Available at http://vista.cira.colostate.edu/Improve/the-pacific-northwest-regional-visibility-experiment-using-natural-tracers-prevent/

Moran P. W., Aluru, N., Black, R. W., Vijayan, M. M. 2007. Tissue contaminants and associated transcriptional response in trout liver from high elevation lakes of Washington. Environ Sci Technol. 41(18): 6591–6597.

Neiber, A., Rybka, S. and Johansen, A. M. 2009. Precipitation Chemistry at Mount Rainier (Paradise Ranger Station) Collection Site. Final Report for Data Collected between June 4, 2008 and June 10, 2009. Cooperative Agreement between NPS and Central Washington University, H9453020047, Chemistry Department, Central Washington University, Ellensburg, WA. 98926–7539.

[NPS] National Park Service. 2010. Air Quality in National Parks: 2009 Annual Performance and Progress Report. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/ARD/NRR—2010/266. National Park Service, Denver, Colorado. Available at https://irma.nps.gov/DataStore/Reference/Profile/2166247

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

Samora, B. A. and Clow, D. 2002. Episodic Acidification at Eunice Lake, Mount Rainier National Park, Washington. Internal Mount Rainier National Park Technical Report. Mount Rainier National Park. Ashford, Washington.

Schwindt, A. R., Fournie, J. W., Landers, D. H., Schreck, C. B., Kent, M. 2008. Mercury Concentrations in Salmonids from Western U.S. National Parks and Relationships with Age and Macrophage Aggregates. Environmental Science & Technology 42 (4): 1365–1370.

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.