Airborne pollutants in Glacier National Park have reached alarming levels, often much higher than other U.S. national parks, according to a recently completed three-year field study.
Dixon Landers, the senior research environmental scientist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, presented “Glacier National Park: Airborne Contaminants, Sources and Risk to Park Ecosystems” to a small crowd at Flathead Valley Community College Tuesday night. Glacier was one of eight national parks studied in the Western Airborne Contaminants Assessment Project (WACAP), conducted by a diverse team of specialists.
The project evaluated the prevalence and potential sources of airborne contaminants that could poison pristine ecosystems. Field crews collected data from snow, water, sediment, fish and terrestrial vegetation like lichen and conifer needles. Landers and other researchers wanted to study the general effects and cycles of airborne pollutants, and they thought national parks would be the most appropriate testing grounds.
“We chose the national parks because they represent some of the most pristine systems we have left,” Landers said.
At issue are “semi-volatile organic compounds,” or SOCs, including but not limited to pollutants from agriculture, industry and fossil fuel emissions. Many of the SOCs found in Glacier were pesticides and metal pollutants. One of the report’s most significant conclusions is that Glacier has the highest concentration of certain SOCs of all the parks in the study, including a pollutant associated with aluminum smelting. Landers pointed out the Columbia Falls Aluminum Plant.
“This is probably not news to most of you,” he said of the contaminants from the aluminum plant.
The research team studied Glacier’s Oldman and Snyder lakes. It chose those lakes for various reasons, Landers said, one of the most important being that they each have fairly isolated watershed systems. That means the contaminants found there from other areas aren’t being carried by rivers – they must be traveling through the air, a theory further supported by the concentration of pollutants in conifer needles, Landers said.
Landers and his crew caught cutthroat trout out of the lakes and analyzed their fatty tissues. Fat traps and contains foreign substances like contaminants. Some of the fish contained so many toxic pollutants that they were dangerous to predators that ate them.
Landers believes his team’s findings are both important and eye-opening.
“What does this all mean and what is society interested in doing about it?” Landers asked.
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