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Air Pollution Impacts

Badlands National Park

Natural and scenic resources in Badlands National Park (NP) are susceptible to the harmful effects of air pollution. Nitrogen, sulfur, ozone, and fine particles impact natural resources such as soils and vegetation, and scenic resources such as visibility. Click on the tabs below to learn more about air pollutants and their impacts on natural and scenic resources at Badlands NP.

  • Visibility
  • Ozone
  • Nitrogen & Sulfur

Visitors come to Badlands NP to enjoy views of a dramatic rock landscape and colorful buttes amidst grassland ecosystems. Unfortunately, park vistas are sometimes obscured by haze caused by fine particles in the air. Many of the same pollutants that contribute to this haze and visibility impairment ultimately fall out as nitrogen and sulfur deposition, potentially affecting soils and vegetation. Additionally, organic compounds, soot, and dust reduce visibility.

Visibility effects at Badlands NP include:

  • Reduced visibility, at times, due to human-caused haze and fine particles of air pollution, including dust;
  • Reduction of the average natural visual range from about 140 miles (without pollution) to about 90 miles because of pollution at the park;
  • Reduction of the visual range to below 50 miles on high pollution days.

(Source: IMPROVE 2013)

Three images depicting air quality impacts on visibility at Badlands National Park, South Dakota (clear to hazy from left to right.)
Air pollutants can affect visibility at Badlands NP, South Dakota (clear to hazy from left to right)

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Photograph of healthy Ponderosa pine needles.
Ponderosa pine, an ozone–sensitive plant at Badlands NP, SD.

Naturally-occurring ozone in the upper atmosphere absorbs the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays and helps to protect all life on earth. However, in the lower atmosphere, ozone is an air pollutant, forming when nitrogen oxides from vehicles, power plants, and other sources combine with volatile organic compounds from gasoline, solvents, and vegetation in the presence of sunlight. In addition to causing respiratory problems in people, ozone can injure plants. Ozone enters leaves through pores (stomata), where it can kill plant tissues, causing visible injury, or reduce photosynthesis, growth, and reproduction.

Ozone concentrations at Badlands NP were relatively high when first monitored (starting in 2003), but levels have decreased in recent years with concentrations now being some of the lowest in the state (SD-DENR 2011 [pdf, 2.0 MB]). A risk assessment that considered ozone exposure, soil moisture, and sensitive plant species concluded that vegetation at Badlands NP was at low risk of foliar ozone injury (Kohut 2004 [pdf, 205 KB]). Ozone exposure levels are low and the arid to semi-arid conditions in the park cause plant stomates to close, limiting ozone uptake. In other parks, scientists have found that in moist areas along streams and seeps, plants may keep stomates open more often, allowing ozone uptake and subsequent injury (Kohut et al. 2012). Ozone-sensitive plants at the park include Fraxinus pennsylvanica (green ash), Pinus ponderosa (ponderosa pine), and Symphoricarpos albus (common snowberry).

Search the list of ozone-sensitive plant species (pdf, 184 KB) found at each national park.

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Cheatgrass at Badlands National park
Nitrogen deposition can promote growth of non-native, invasive grasses, such as cheatgrass.

Nitrogen (N) and sulfur (S) compounds deposited from air pollution can harm vegetation, soils, and surface waters throughout Badlands NP. At a nearby monitor, concentrations of N (ammonium) in rain and snow have been increasing since the mid–1990s (Pohlman and Maniero 2005, Lehmann et al. 2007). Nitrogen acts as a fertilizer, disrupting soil nutrient cycling, altering plant communities, and contributing to overenrichment and eutrophication. Plants in grassland ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to changes caused by nitrogen deposition, as they are often N-limited. Ecosystem sensitivity to nutrient N enrichment at Badlands NP relative to other national parks is high (Sullivan et al. 2011a; Sullivan et al. 2011b [pdf, 7.39 MB]).

Invasive grasses tend to thrive in areas with elevated nitrogen deposition, displacing native vegetation adapted to low nitrogen conditions. Cheatgrass—a non-native weed—is a “common invader” in the northern Great Plains (Ogle and Reiners 2002). In similar ecoregions of the southern Colorado Plateau, Great Basin, and Mojave Desert, increased N deposition has allowed weedy annual grasses (e.g., cheatgrass) to invade grasslands at the expense of native species (Brooks 2003; Schwinning et al. 2005; Chambers et al. 2007; Mazzola et al. 2008; Vasquez et al. 2008; Allen et al. 2009). N increases may also exacerbate water use in plants like big sagebrush (Inouye 2006).

N, together with S, can also acidify surface waters and soils. Ecosystem sensitivity to N & S acidification at Badlands NP relative to other national parks is moderate (Sullivan et al. 2011c; Sullivan et al. 2011d [pdf, 2.32 MB]). Park surface waters are well buffered against acid inputs.

How much nitrogen is too much?

Nitrogen is a fertilizer and some nitrogen is necessary for plants to grow. However, in natural ecosystems, too much nitrogen can disrupt the balance of plant communities, allowing weedy species to grow faster. For example, too much nitrogen causes changes in grassland communities, with sensitive species gradually replaced by pollution-tolerant species like cheatgrass. The amount of nitrogen that ecosystems (e.g., grasslands) can tolerate without significant harm is called the critical load. Critical loads of 10–25 kilograms N per hectare per year (kg N/ha/yr) and 5–15 kg N/ha/yr have been suggested to protect mixed/shortgrass prairie and tallgrass prairie, respectively, in the Great Plains Ecoregion, which includes Badlands NP (Pardo et al. 2011). This study estimated that current N deposition over the Great Plains is 2–14 kg/ha/yr, suggesting that increases in N emissions and deposition in the region could place native plant communities at risk for harmful effects. More recent research in grasslands indicates that the majority of species changes occur at or below the range of the currently established critical load, and that very low levels of N can impact diversity in grasslands, especially in relatively unpolluted areas (Payne et al. 2013). Recent analyses indicate that N deposition in a small portion of the easternmost part of the park exceeds the nutrient N critical load for tall grass prairies (5–15 kg N/ha/yr), and more than half of the park received N deposition within 1 kg N/ha/yr of the lower critical load estimate (5 kg N/ha/yr) (Sullivan and McDonnell 2014 [pdf 8.45 MB]). Therefore, any appreciable increase in N deposition from oil and gas exploration and production, or other sources, will increase the likelihood of exceedance and consequent ecological changes associated with excess N. Critical loads can be used to establish air quality goals for ecosystem protection and management.

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Studies and Monitoring icon

Studies and monitoring help the NPS understand the environmental impacts of air pollution. Access air quality data and see what is happening with Studies and Monitoring at Badlands NP.

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Last Updated: December 30, 2016