Situated high is California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, Sequoia National Park protects the only place on Earth where giant sequoias – the world’s largest trees by volume – grow naturally. Air pollution, however, does not recognize the boundaries set up by the National Park Service (NPS). While hiking there recently, I learned more about the air quality issues facing this national natural treasure.
According to a recent report by the National Parks Conservation Association, Sequoia National Park received an “F” for air quality. While other parks in the NPS system also have air quality concerns, Sequoia NP was rated the worst in the nation. In 2014, its Ash Mountain monitoring station recorded 56 days where the level of ozone was above federal health standards.
In most parts of the country, air quality issues are often connected to emissions from coal-fired power plants, but in California there are a few other factors at play. While the region’s notorious wildfires do create some air quality problems, the NPS says the vast majority of the pollution in the park comes from human activities outside its borders. With a prevailing westerly wind in the region during the summer months, emissions from large-scale industrial and agricultural activities as well as massive amounts of vehicle exhaust are swept eastward from San Francisco and across the San Joaquin Valley. Trapped by the topography of the valley, the polluted air is heated and forced to rise up to the elevation of the park. Pollutants found in the air include nitrogen oxides, ground level ozone, fine particulate matter, and traces of pesticides.
Of these pollutants, ground level ozone, which forms when nitrogen oxides react with heat and U.V. light, poses the most serious threat to human health. It is known to cause a variety of repository problems and is often the reason given for air quality alerts. It is also harmful to plants and trees – the organisms that are supposed to be protected by the park.
While ozone does not seem to be impacting mature sequoias, the NPS says experiments have shown that it is stunting the growth of sequoia seedlings. That said, other trees in the park, such as Ponderosa and Jeffrey Pines are feeling its full effect. Damaging their stomata – tiny pores on their needles that usually absorb carbon dioxide -the pollutant reduces a tree’s ability to perform photosynthesis and therefore its ability to produce and store food. As a result, they are weakened and more susceptible to disease and insects. The telltale sign of ozone damage is the yellowing and thinning of a conifer’s needles.
Air pollution is also responsible for the smog that obscures views in the park. On a clear day, according the NPS, the view from Beetle Rock – which is about 6,200 feet above sea level – extends for more than 100 miles. In summer, when the smog is worst, that view is often significantly reduced.
The good news is that air quality issues in the park – like much of the rest of the country – have improved in recent years as a result of measures associated with the Clean Air Act. The bad news is that it still remains a serious problem. Seeing that our actions can make a difference, we can continue to reduce air pollution by conserving energy and reducing emissions – a similar strategy to reducing the impacts of climate change.