Is the air quality in Glacier National Park good or bad?

The below article talks about Glacier National Park, the air quality in Glacier National Park, along with some frequently asked questions about the same. 

Is the air quality in Glacier National Park good or bad?

The air quality patterns in the past, as well as future forecasts, show that air quality in Glacier National Park is good. The dominant air pollutant in the Glacier area is ozone and particulate matter, and occasionally these levels rise and cause a temporary decrease in air quality in the surroundings of the national park. However, for the larger part of the year, air quality in the national park is good and is considered healthy. 

Glacier National Park 

The Glacier national park is an American park in Northwestern Montana and is along the borders of the United States of America and Canada. The park is adjacent to the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia and is said to cover almost 1 million in area, approximately 4,000 sq. km. The park boasts of two mountain ranges, over 130 identified lakes, over 1000 different species of plants and animals; and a pristine ecosystem, that has been quite often referred to as the “Crown of the Continent Ecosystem”. 

The national park area was inhabited by Native Americans until European colonizers took over the land. On pressurizing Native American tribes, the land was turned over to the federal government in 1895, which became a national park by 1910. The mountains in the park were formed about 170 million years back, and the sedimentary rocks in this area are said to have some of the finest fossilized evidence of life on earth in early times. In the mid-19th century, the park was said to have over 150 glaciers, which reduced dramatically to 25 active glaciers by 2010. The accelerated melting of these glaciers was directly attributed to increased anthropological activities in the area. 

Impacts on flora and fauna of Glacier National Park due to poor air quality

While the park itself has good air quality, it is prone to exposure to toxic pollutants when they are blown into the area from the cities. This could have devastating impacts on the soil, plants, animals, and other natural resources in the park. Some of the effects could be as follows (NPS, n.d.):

  • Bioaccumulation of airborne contaminants such as mercury has been found to cause harmful physical health effects on wildlife, plants, and humans. This could also cause reduced reproductive rates, impaired growth, decreased survival rates, etc. 
  • Studies conducted through the park have found increased rates of mercury in fish from numerous lakes in the park and have been found to contribute towards increased liver and spleen damage in fishes. 
  • There has been a significant increase in intersex fishes due to the increased exposure to contaminants. Further studies are being conducted to identify the specific contaminants that lead to this effect. 
  • Various studies conducted over the years in the park have found that selenium is present largely in aquatic species. While it does protect these species from mercury toxicity, increased quantities could interrupt the balance on their diets and be toxic to animals and humans in larger quantities. 
  • Concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons were found to exceed in ranges from 3.6 to 60,000 times the recommended levels. The greatest concentrations found in the Snyder Lake watershed could be attributed to the emissions from local aluminum smelters. Although now closed, the deposit concentrations still remain strong in these areas.  
  • Nitrogen and sulfur deposits from the air cause acidification of water bodies and cause devastating impacts on marine and land ecosystems. The mere presence of these chemicals in the area increases the vulnerabilities of water bodies to absorb these contaminants into the water.
  • While nitrogen could potentially help the growth of various plants, the overload of this nutrient has been found to cause nutrient overload, causing a strain on the balance of the ecosystem. 
  • Glaciers have the potential to act as sinks for nitrogen, and thus store nitrogen over long periods of time. Therefore, with increased global warming that causes the melting of glaciers, excess nitrogen is released into the environment, disrupting the nutrient cycle of plants and the ecosystem, causing nutrient overload. 
  • Ground-level ozone though not usually a direct product of anthropological events, they are a by-product formed by the chemical reaction between volatile organic compounds and other pollutants that react to sunlight. Ozone can cause damage to plant tissue and cause inhibition in the processes of photosynthesis, reduce the plants’ resistance to disease or insect infestations, etc. 
  • Samples of air taken during studies of air quality and reduced visibility in the national park show that the most dominant air pollutant within the park would be organic carbon that is associated with smoke from wildfires (8KPAX, 2019). 
  • The second-largest contributor is sulfates which are associated with industrial processes and fossil-fuel-powered activities (8KPAX, 2019).  

Activities taken up to monitor and maintain air quality levels in Glacier National Park

The staff of the national park has been monitoring air quality levels since 1988, and have been studying the effects of ever-changing air quality levels on the natural resources around them. Air Quality Awareness Week in 2019, prompted the park to announce its mobile air quality monitoring system that would measure particulate matter concentrations in different areas of the park so that specific measures can be taken to address these concerns (8KPAX, 2019). Especially when the higher rates of pollutants can be attributed to increased smoke volumes from the wildfires, dust smokes, etc. 

The national park is protected under the Clean Air Act and has been classified as a Class 1 Airshed. This classification makes it important for the area to have pristine air quality to maintain the holistic health of the ecosystem in the area. The park also contributes air quality monitoring data for the NPS air monitoring program held under National Park Services in the US. It has been observed, through these studies and analyses that the main sources of air pollution towards the national park could be attributed to industrial plants, agricultural activities, and fossil fuel development in the area. 

Forecasts for air quality and air pollutant concentrations, in the Glacier National Park are available here

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): How good is the air quality in the Glacier National Park?

What cities in the US have the worst air quality?

As of January 22, 2022, IQAir reports the following cities as having the worst air quality in the US:

Source: IQAir (2022, January 22)

1Lynwood-Pricedale, Pennsylvania188
2Altamont, Oregon159
3Beaver, Pennsylvania158
4Glassport, Pennsylvania155
5Orrville, Ohio153
6West Newton, Pennsylvania153
7West Mifflin, Pennsylvania152
8Homestead, Pennsylvania151
9Lincoln, Montana151
10Canton, Ohio149

What are the air quality rankings in the West Glacier area?

Source: IQAir (2022, January 22). Real-time West Glacier air quality ranking

1Flathead Valley27
2Quarter Circle Bridge Road and Barn Road15
3Glacier NP14
4Lake McDonald Ranger Station7

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8KPAX. (2019, May 07). Glacier National Park focuses on clean, clear air. Flathead County. Local News. Viewed on 01-22-2022. 

IQAir. (2022, January 22). Real-time USA City Ranking. Live AQI City Ranking. Viewed on 01-22-2022. 

IQAir. (2022, January 22). Real-time West Glacier air quality ranking. Live AQI Station Ranking. Viewed on 01-22-2022.  

IQAir. (2022, January 22). Air Quality near Glacier NP, West Glacier. Viewed on 01-22-2022. 

Montana. (n.d.). Glacier National Park. Viewed on 01-22-2022. 

meteoblue. (2022, January 22). Air Quality and Pollen Forecast for Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. Viewed on 01-22-2022. 

National Park Service (NPS). (n.d.). Park Air Profiles – Glacier National Park. Department of the Interior. The United States of America. Viewed on 01-22-2022.,Air%20quality%20at%20Glacier%20National%20Park,and%20clear%20views%20in%20parks.&text=Air%20pollutants%20blown%20into%20the,plants%2C%20wildlife%2C%20and%20visibility

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