Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The (Air Pollution) Picture Improves at National Parks

• March 13, 2013 • 3:12 PM

Moro Rock steps

Did I mention there were lots of steps at Moro Rock.

I used to live in California’s Central Valley, and as a result could hop up to Yosemite or Kings Canyon/Sequoia national parks a dozen or so times a year. Aside from its giant trees, Sequoia has a particularly august feature, Moro Rock, a gigantic chunk of granite with stairs—lots of stairs—that allow you to reach an amazing vista point looking out over the Southern Sierra Nevada and into the Central Valley.

Except that the air quality usually was so bad that in addition to breathing lots of dreck as you huffed and puffed the steps, when you did make the top it was next to impossible to ever see the breadth of view that should have been routine.

I haven’t been back to Moro Rock lately, but I’m heartened to see—literally—scientists reporting that air quality and visibility at the United States’ national parks has been improving significantly in the last two decades. Analyzing measurements of atmospheric conditions then and now, researchers with the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere at Colorado State University have created a series of pictures that demonstrate the air is genuinely clearer.

Maybe not in Beijing, but in the United States the air has grown cleaner since the bad old days of the 1960s and ‘70s. Between cars and coal, we pumped lots of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide (surely you recall those Seussian pollutants SOx and NOx?) into the air, leading to both acid rain and awful smog. A couple of signature pieces of federal legislation, including 1970’s Clean Air Act, its 1977 amendment that specifically noted the deleterious effect of pollution on national parks, and the 1990 acid rain program, all helped turn the tide on the worst of the haze.

But showing incremental improvement can be tough because it’s, well, incremental. It’s like watching children grow, yourself age or the world warm—nothing is apparent from one day to the next. The data is there, but the ‘feel’ isn’t. So, as the rude retort goes… take a picture, it’ll last longer.

“Yet it is difficult for scientists, let along decision-makers and lay persons, to ‘visually interpret’ changes” in pollution measurements presented in tables or even graphs, three Colorado scientists wrote in the journal Atmospheric Environment in 1995. “Photography is a method that is ideally suited to present the required information in constant, reproducible, and easily understandable form.” So for the last three decades the boffins at Colorado State have been using visual simulations to make changes in air quality pop out.

As part of the Interagency Monitoring of Protected Visual Environments (IMPROVE) network, more than 150 sites in the United States are examined for particles—pollutants generally, but ranging from soot to sea salt—in the air. The sites are mostly national parks or otherwise scenic areas, but a few cities—including my old home of Fresno—are included. The data on those aerosols, as the particles are known, is used to make the simulated pictures.

Jenny Hand, the atmospheric scientist and lead author on the most recent haze report put out by IMPROVE, makes no claims that the air picture these days is perfect. “Though there have been dramatic improvements in air quality, high levels of air pollution still occur and are environmentally harmful,” a release from Colorado State quotes her. “Diligence is required to maintain the improved air quality we now enjoy and to resolve remaining issues.”

We know that some of that is other junk in the air–things like semi-volatile organic compounds, endocrine disrupters and mercury, even pesticides DDT and dieldrin that have been banned for years. As Joan Melcher wrote for us in 2010, an EPA-sponsored study of national parks in the Western U.S. found all manner of ugly stuff blowing in and settling down in the eight national parks studied (including Sequoia/Kings Canyon). These weren’t haze-promoting compounds like SOx, NOx, and ammonium nitrate, but more toxic stuff that generally didn’t stay airborne that settles down in lakes, land, and lifeforms, especially at higher elevations.

Even here, the picture wasn’t uniformly gloomy. Efforts to cut down use of these toxins outside the parks can, eventually, bear fruit inside. As Melcher recounted:

“I think the most hopeful thing I get out of the study is if pesticides are reduced, we do see that reduction in the parks,” [National Park Service ecologist] Blett said. “What we saw in the sediment work shows that banning and reducing pollutants also means that there will be less of them that show up in park ecosystems. It means that we as a society do have some choices and some control over that.”

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.