Report: Ammonium finding its way into West’s national parks
December 27, 2007
BILLINGS, Mont. ” A nitrogen compound associated with fertilizer and other agricultural activity is finding its way into Yellowstone, Glacier and Rocky Mountain national parks.
Ammonium can subtly change the ecosystems of lakes, ponds and alpine meadows. A recent National Park Service report concluded that airborne ammonium rose significantly in the three parks ” as well as in Arizona, Idaho, South Dakota and Utah parks ” between 1996 and 2005.
In Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, scientists studying ammonium levels have begun noticing shifts in alpine ecosystems, where wildflowers are giving way to grasses.
Wildflowers are one of the park’s main attractions. Their decline also could be harmful to pollinating insects. Scientists also are monitoring how ammonium could affect forests and the microscopic life in high-elevation lakes.
“What we’re experiencing now could easily be something that Yellowstone could see in the future,” said Jeff Connor, a natural resource specialist at Rocky Mountain National Park.
The report said air quality in Yellowstone remains good. Visibility is improving and the presence of ground-level ozone, listed as a concern in recent studies, has leveled off.
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But ammonium levels have increased over the past several years.
“The real question is why it’s increasing,” said John Vimont, chief of research and monitoring in the Park Service’s air resources division in Denver.
“It’s not just in Yellowstone, it’s up and down the western Great Plains.”
Ammonia is made of nitrogen and hydrogen. When it mixes with water, it becomes ammonium.
Often ammonia is associated with large animal feeding operations and fertilizers, but it can also occur naturally.
A Colorado State University study of Rocky Mountain National Park pollution concluded that the ammonium might be originating from the east and being deposited by rain and snow.
Mark Wenzler, clean-air program director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said it’s been troubling to see increasing levels of ozone and other pollutants in national parks in the West.
“We can see these threats coming, but it’s not too late to stop them,” Wenzler said.