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Ecological Effects of Air Pollution

Photo of Little Five Lakes at Sequoia and Kings Canyon, California. Photo of Spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium). Photo of a loon.
Ecological effects of air pollution can include long-term changes in water quality, soil chemistry, and plant species composition, as well as bioaccumulation of toxics in fish, birds, and wildlife.

Air pollutants can harm ecological resources, including water quality, soils, plants, and animals. Ozone, for example, can cause damage to plant tissues and reduced growth in some sensitive plant species. The National Park Service conducts studies in parks to help understand how and where air pollution is affecting ecosystems. We use this information to develop pollution reduction goals for parks where ecosystems are damaged.

Nitrogen and sulfur in air pollution are carried by rain, snow, and fog into park ecosystems where they threaten sensitive aquatic and terrestrial resources. Nitrogen and sulfur compounds deposited from the air can cause acidification of soils, lakes, and streams. Although nitrogen is an essential plant nutrient, excess nitrogen in soils and surface waters may also disrupt soil nutrient cycling and alter plant communities.

Metals (such as mercury) and toxic compounds (like pesticides) can be deposited from the atmosphere and bioaccumulate in the food chain. This can cause behavioral, neurological, and reproductive effects in fish, birds, and wildlife.

Assessing Ecological Effects

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Last Updated: January 08, 2014