Great Smoky Mountain Air

Great Smoky Mountains National Park's biologically diverse ecosystems face the threat of air pollution. However, the future may hold clearer skies as air quality over the park might be improving.

GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK — Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a biologic treasure trove. More than 20,000 species of animals and plants have been identified living in the park. Adding to its natural wonder, a large part of the 520,000 acre park has been undisturbed for centuries. 

The Park is a unique place not only to preserve and protect landscapes and a great variety of life, but it’s also useful for researchers to be able to study what happens to species over a long period of time. 

“The Smokies have a rich history of being studied for over 100 years,” explains Dana Soehn, communications specialist with the National Park Service at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “There are early descriptions by people who explored the area. We have botanical records of people coming here and describing species for the first time, and we also have great sets of data on weather and water quality that allows us to look at impacts over a long term data set.” 

The long history of observing and documenting the biodiversity in the park is a valuable research tool to understand how the park is changing. However, all of that data is showing a great threat to the park: the air. 

“You wish you could, but the reality is that all of these things can’t be protected by simply drawing a line around the Smokies and saying that once you cross this line it is now protected from all harm,” adds Soehn. “So many challenges are now presenting themselves that come across that line, some of which are coming from our air. You learn about the threats we have to so many different species from air quality.” 

In fact, Great Smoky Mountains National Park experiences some of the highest measured air pollution of any national park in the country. It also receives the highest level of acid deposition from acid rain and acid fog of any park. 

It’s all because of the park’s location. Straddling the border of Tennessee and North Carolina means that the park is downwind of many sources of air pollution, including power plants, factories and vehicles. In fact, the emissions from the eastern two-thirds of the nation affect the air over the Great Smokies. 

The air pollution contributes to the decline of old growth forests. Ground level ozone harms plants. The acid rain increases the acid content in the soil, which blocks plant nutrients and releases other toxic chemicals. The acid rain also changes the chemistry in streams, which affects forest health and kills aquatic vegetation as well as fish. 

All of those effects may be difficult to spot, unless the observer has a trained eye in science. But what is likely most visible to park goers is how pollution combined with fine particles in the air creates haze. 

The naturally occurring haze from water vapor is worsened by air pollution. Scenic vistas that should be seen for almost 113 miles are now only visible for 25 miles. 

But if the skies seem dark and dirty, the researcher in charge of monitoring the park's air quality does see a bit of blue sky from the progress in cleaning up the air that has been made so far.

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