National parks protect amazing viewsheds of the natural world. Whether it is cruising Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, peering into the Grand Canyon, or admiring the rugged peaks of the Grand Tetons, the breath-taking scenery of our national parks is a memorable part of visiting these places. Often, it is not until those viewsheds are impacted do people begin to realize the importance of air quality to their national park experience.
Air Quality at Devils TowerThinking of the American West may conjure romantic ideas of vast open prairies and stunning mountain ranges. Visitors from urban areas are struck by the "nothingness" they encounter in this rural landscape where human structures are more an exception than a rule. Approaching Devils Tower National Monument, one can see the monolith from miles away. It beckons to the wary traveller to come explore, learn, and be mystified. Although the clear air of northeastern Wyoming often allows for this opportunity, recent changes to air quality have impacted visibility throughout the region.
Summer wildfires that burn hundreds of miles from the Tower send smoke and ash into the air. That smoke will drift into the Black Hills region, and formations such as Devils Tower disappear in the haze. Intensity and duration of the natural fire season has increased in recent years as the planet warms and forested areas become drier. As humans put more carbon into the atmosphere, these effects increase.
Forest management - such as regulated logging and prescribed fire - can help reduce intensity of wildfires. Reducing carbon emissions will stem the increasing severity of wildfires in the long-term. Putting more carbon into the atmosphere traps heat energy, causing the planet to warm and the overall climate to change; humans have been adding carbon to the atmosphere for over 200 years, and the rate of climate change is proceeding faster than previous climate variations.
Carbon emissions not only warm the planet, but also contribute to general air pollution. Burning fossil fuels, from driving our cars to generating power for our homes, creates air pollution that reduces air quality and overall visibility. Although much of this air pollution is generated outside of of our national parks, the impacts are being felt even in these protected viewsheds.