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Scenic views and native vegetation images from parks within Rocky Mountain Network

Studies and Monitoring

Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve

Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve (NP & Pres), Colorado, has its own unique environmental concerns based on its particular ecology. Air quality studies and monitoring programs at Great Sand Dunes NP & Pres focus on nitrogen and sulfur deposition, and toxic air contaminants. Click on the tabs below to review air quality studies and key scientific references at Great Sand Dunes NP & Pres, as well as to access information on air quality monitoring in the park.

  • Studies & Projects
  • Monitoring & Data
  • Key References

Ongoing research in Great Sand Dunes NP & Pres, Colorado:

Nitrogen & Sulfur Impacts

Nitrogen and sulfur deposition at the park can be particularly harmful to sensitive high elevation lakes and vegetation communities. Recent analyses indicate certain ecosystems in the park are at risk from atmospheric deposition (Nanus et al. 2009; Sullivan et al. 2011a; Sullivan et al. 2011b [pdf, 11.1 MB], Sullivan et al. 2011c; Sullivan et al. 2011d [pdf, 3.1 MB]). Excess nitrogen can induce fertilization effects, including changes to the species composition of sensitive aquatic and terrestrial communities. Potential effects have not been evaluated in the park, but research in other Rocky Mountain ecosystems has defined these thresholds, or critical loads, to be about 1.5 kilograms per hectare of wet nitrogen deposition per year (kg/ha/yr) for aquatic communities (Saros et al 2010; Baron 2006), and 4 kg/ha/yr of wet plus dry nitrogen deposition for terrestrial communities (Bowman et al. 2006). Water chemistry monitoring that started as part of a US Forest Service study, continues at Upper and Lower Little Sand Creek Lakes in an effort to analyze the effects of air pollutants on natural resources.

Airborne Toxic, including Mercury, Impacts

Air currents transport toxic contaminants such as pesticides, industrial pollutants, and mercury from their sources, and deposit these toxics in rain, snow, and dry deposition (e.g., dust) at Great Sand Dunes NP & Pres. Research findings from the Western Airborne Contaminants Assessment Project (WACAP) and Rocky Mountain Regional Snowpack Chemistry Monitoring Study found airborne contaminants in park air, vegetation, snow, and water (Ingersoll et al. 2007 [pdf, 1.1 MB]; Keteles 2011 [pdf, 57.0 KB]; Landers et al. 2010; Landers et al. 2008). Concentrations of current-use pesticides in air and vegetation samples at the park were elevated when compared to other national parks (Landers et al. 2010; Landers et al. 2008).

Follow-up research is examining the extent to which contaminants are causing abnormalities in reproductive organs in fish at Great Sand Dunes NP & Pres and other parks. Fish in other western national parks, including Rocky Mountain and Glacier NPs, have been found with pesticide and mercury concentrations exceeding human and/or wildlife health thresholds (Landers et al. 2010; Landers et al. 2008). Reproductive abnormalities associated with airborne contaminant exposure were detected in some male fish at these parks (Schwindt et al. 2009). An ongoing study to analyze mercury concentrations in fish from western national parks, including Great Sand Dunes NP & Pres, will fill gaps in spatial understanding of mercury contamination and identify potential risks to humans and wildlife consuming fish at the park (study overview [pdf, 699 KB]).

Air quality monitoring information and data access:

Air Pollutant/Impact

Monitoring Program

Sites and Data Access

Nitrogen & Sulfur Wet deposition NADP/NTN
  • Alamosa (located approx. 20 mi from Great Sand Dunes NP & Pres)
NPS Air Quality Inventory
Toxics & Mercury WACAP
Ozone NPS Air Quality Inventory
Visibility IMPROVE

Abbreviations in the above table:

    GRSA: Great Sand Dunes NP & Pres (GRSA)
    IMPROVE: Interagency Monitoring of Protected Visual Environments
    NADP: National Atmospheric Deposition Program
    NPS: National Park Service
    NTN: National Trends Network
    VIEWS: Visibility Information Exchange Web System
    WACAP: Western Airborne Contaminants Assessment Project

For more information regarding monitoring and data assessments conducted by the National Park Service, link to the NPS Air Quality Monitoring Program or to the NPS Air Quality Monitoring History Database for a history of active and inactive monitoring sites at Great Sand Dunes NP & Pres.

Key air quality related references from Great Sand Dunes NP & Pres, Colorado:

Baron, J. S. 2006. Hindcasting nitrogen deposition to determine an ecological critical load. Ecological Applications 16: 433–439.

Binkley, D., Giardina, C., Dockersmith, I., Morse, D., Scruggs, M., Tonnessen, K. 1997. Status of Air Quality and Related Values in Class I National Parks and Monuments of the Colorado Plateau. National Park Service, Air Resources Division, Denver, Colorado. Chapter 10: Great Sand Dunes National Park. Available at http://www.nature.nps.gov/air/Pubs/pdf/reviews/cp/CP10grsa.pdf (pdf, 319 KB).

Bowman, W. D., Gartner, J. R., Holland, K., Wiedermann, M. 2006. Nitrogen critical loads for alpine vegetation and terrestrial ecosystem response: are we there yet? Ecological Applications 16(3): 1183–1193.

[IMPROVE] Interagency Monitoring of Protected Visual Environments. 2010. Improve Summary Data. Available at http://vista.cira.colostate.edu/improve/Data/IMPROVE/summary_data.htm.

Ingersoll, G. P., Mast, M. A., Nanus, L., Handran, H. H., Manthorne, D. J., and Hultstrand, D. M. 2007. Rocky Mountain snowpack chemistry at selected sites, 2004: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2007-1045, 15 p. Available at http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2007/1045/pdf/OF07-1045_508.pdf (pdf, 1.1 MB).

Keteles, K. 2011. Screening for Pesticides in High Elevation Lakes in Federal Lands. EPA Final Report. Denver, CO. 11 pp. Available at http://www.nature.nps.gov/air/Pubs/pdf/toxics/Keteles_pesticides_2011.pdf [pdf, 57.0 KB])

Kohut, R., Flanagan, C., Cheatham, J., Porter, E. Foliar Ozone Injury on Cutleaf Coneflower at Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, U.S.A. In Prep.

Kohut, R. 2004. Assessing the Risk of Foliar Injury from Ozone on Vegetation in Parks in the Rocky Mountain Network. Available at http://www.nature.nps.gov/air/Pubs/pdf/03Risk/romnO3RiskOct04.pdf (pdf, 145 KB).

Landers, D. H., Simonich, S. M., Jaffe, D., Geiser, L., Campbell, D. H., Schwindt, A., Schreck, C., Kent, M., Hafner, W., Taylor, H. E., Hageman, K., Usenko, S., Ackerman, L., Schrlau, J., Rose, N., Blett, T., Erway, M. M. 2010. The Western Airborne Contaminant Assessment Project (WACAP): An Interdisciplinary Evaluation of the Impacts of Airborne Contaminants in Western U.S. National Parks. Environmental Science and Technology 44: 855–859.

Landers, D. H., S. L. Simonich, D. A. Jaffe, L. H. Geiser, D. H. Campbell, A. R. Schwindt, C. B. Schreck, M. L. Kent, W. D. Hafner, H. E. Taylor, K. J. Hageman, S. Usenko, L. K. Ackerman, J. E. Schrlau, N. L. Rose, T. F. Blett, and M. M. Erway. 2008. The Fate, Transport, and Ecological Impacts of Airborne Contaminants in Western National Parks (USA). EPA/600/R—07/138. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Research and Development, NHEERL, Western Ecology Division, Corvallis, Oregon. Available at http://www.nature.nps.gov/air/studies/air_toxics/WACAPreport.cfm.

Nanus, L., Williams, M. W., Campbell, D. H., Tonnessen, K. A., Blett, T., and Clow, D. W. 2009. Assessment of lake sensitivity to acidic deposition in national parks of the Rocky Mountains. Ecological Applications 19(4): 961–973.

Porter, E. and Johnson, S. 2007. Translating science into policy: Using ecosystem thresholds to protect resources in Rocky Mountain National Park. Environmental Pollution 149: 268–280.

Saros, J. E., Clow, D. W., Blett, T., Wolfe, A. P. 2010. Critical nitrogen deposition loads in high-elevation lakes of the western U.S. inferred from paleolimnological records. Water, Air, and Soil Pollution 216(1–4): 193–202.

Schwindt, A. R., Kent, M. L., Ackerman, L. K., Massey Simonich, S. L., Landers, D. H., Blett, T., Schreck, C. B. 2009. Reproductive Abnormalities in Trout from Western U.S. National Parks. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 138: 522–531.

Sullivan, T. J., McDonnell, T. C., McPherson, G. T., Mackey, S. D., Moore, D. 2011a. Evaluation of the sensitivity of inventory and monitoring national parks to nutrient enrichment effects from atmospheric nitrogen deposition: main report. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/ARD/NRR—2011/313. National Park Service, Denver, Colorado. Available at www.nature.nps.gov/air/permits/aris/networks/n-sensitivity.cfm.

Sullivan, T. J., McDonnell, T. C., McPherson, G. T., Mackey, S. D., Moore, D. 2011b. Evaluation of the sensitivity of inventory and monitoring national parks to nutrient enrichment effects from atmospheric nitrogen deposition: Rocky Mountain Network (ROMN). Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/ARD/NRR—2011/324. National Park Service, Denver, Colorado. Available at http://www.nature.nps.gov/air/Pubs/pdf/n-sensitivity/romn_n_sensitivity_2011-02.pdf (pdf, 11.1 MB).

Sullivan, T. J., McPherson, G. T., McDonnell, T. C., Mackey, S. D., Moore, D. 2011c. Evaluation of the sensitivity of inventory and monitoring national parks to acidification effects from atmospheric sulfur and nitrogen deposition: main report. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/ARD/NRR—2011/349. National Park Service, Denver, Colorado. Available at http://www.nature.nps.gov/air/permits/aris/networks/acidification-eval.cfm.

Sullivan, T. J., McPherson, G. T., McDonnell, T. C., Mackey, S. D., Moore, D. 2011d. Evaluation of the sensitivity of inventory and monitoring national parks to acidification effects from atmospheric sulfur and nitrogen deposition: Rocky Mountian Network (ROMN). Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/ARD/NRR—2011/360. National Park Service, Denver, Colorado. Available at http://www.nature.nps.gov/air/Pubs/pdf/acidification/romn_acidification-eval_2011-05.pdf (pdf, 3.1MB).


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Pollutants including nitrogen, sulfur, mercury, ozone, and fine particles affect resources such as surface waters, soils, and scenic vistas. Find out how on our Great Sand Dunes NP & Pres Air Pollution Impacts web page.

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Last Updated: November 03, 2011