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Volume 26
Number 2
Fall 2009
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Trout in the hand of an airborne contaminants researcher. Credit: NPS/Travis Guy. State of Science
Contaminants study provides window into airborne toxic impacts in western U.S. and Alaska national parks
Results and implications of the Western Airborne Contaminants Assessment Project
By Colleen Flanagan
Published: 4 Sep 2015 (online)  •  14 Sep 2015 (in print)
Airborne contaminants detected
Unexpected findings
Implications of results
A wake-up call
Acknowledgments and further information
WACAP citation
About the author
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Investigators in the WACAP study journey into park backcountry on skis in winter at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.


WACAP investigators make their way into park backcountry at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks in midwinter to collect snow samples for airborne contaminant analysis.

TRANSPORT AND DEPOSITION OF ATMOSPHERIC CONTAMINANTS have been recognized as a possible threat to aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems for several decades. Studies in the 1970s and 1980s on air quality and acidic precipitation first demonstrated the concept of long-range transport of airborne contaminants in the United States. Numerous other airborne contaminant threats to ecosystems and humans that depend upon them were subsequently identified. The presence of contaminants in remote Arctic ecosystems with no local or watershed sources of contaminants confirmed the risk of long-range atmospheric transport. High-elevation and high-latitude areas were identified as areas of particular peril due to the tendency of contaminants, such as some pesticides, to migrate to colder alpine and Arctic areas and deposit with the annual snowpack.

Given the above concerns, as well as the persistence and toxicity of these contaminants in the environment, the bioaccumulative properties of many compounds that magnify concentrations at higher levels of the food chain, and federal legislation that requires protection of the natural parks in perpetuity, the National Park Service (NPS) conducted the multiagency Western Airborne Contaminants Assessment Project (WACAP) from 2002 to 2007 to determine the risk from airborne toxic compounds to national park ecosystems and food webs. Concentration of contaminants in air, snow, water, lake sediment, lichen, conifer needles, and fish was determined from sampling two sites/lakes in eight core park units: Denali National Park and Preserve (Alaska), Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve (Alaska), Glacier National Park (Montana), Mount Rainier National Park (Washington), Noatak National Preserve (Alaska), Olympic National Park (Washington), Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado), and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (California). More limited assessments focusing on vegetation and air were conducted in 12 secondary parks (fig. 1).

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This page updated:  30 October 2009

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From the Editor
In This Issue
20 Years Ago in Park Science
At Your Service
Information Crossfile
In Focus
Restoration Journal
Field Moment
Meetings of Interest
Masthead Information
Forest vegetation monitoring in eastern national parks
  Contaminants study provides window into airborne toxic impacts in western U.S. and Alaska national parks
Exploring the influence of genetic diversity on pitcher plant restoration in Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
Sidebar: Ecology of plant carnivory
Students to the rescue of freshwater mussels at St. Croix National Scenic Riverway
Pulse study links scientists and managers
A rapid, invasive plant survey method for national park units with a cultural resource focus
Prescribed fire and nonnative plant spread in Zion National Park
Partnership behaviors, motivations, constraints, and training needs among NPS employees
Sidebar: The partnership phenomenon
Distribution and abundance of Barbary sheep and other ungulates in Carlsbad Caverns National Park
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