Nitrogen pollution changing Rocky Mountain National Park vegetation: Study

Nitrogen pollution changing Rocky Mountain National Park vegetation: Study

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A recent study, described in a press release published by the University of Colorado at Boulder, “indicates air pollution in the form of nitrogen compounds emanating from power plants, automobiles and agriculture is changing the alpine vegetation in Rocky Mountain National Park.”

The emissions have disrupted the sensitive ecosystems even in remote regions, according to lead scientist CU Boulder Professor William Bowman, who directs the CU Boulder Mountain Research Station.  In an attempt to contextualize the seriousness of the changes, Mr. Bowman said, “The changes are subtle, but important. They represent a first step in a series of changes which may be relatively irreversible.”

In the article Mr. Bowman explains how “nitrogen pollutants correlate with decreased biodiversity, acidified soils and dead stream organisms like trout.” Bowman and his team selected an alpine meadow “roughly one mile east of Chapin Pass in the Mummy Range of Rocky Mountain National Park” as the site for their study. Analyzing the plant communities and soils under ambient levels of nitrogen deposition in comparison with a simulation. The simulation was conducted with added nitrogen, intended to study what will happen if atmospheric nitrogen pollution continues into the next decade.

Throughout the course of three years, the study found that changes in plant abundance were already occurring under ambient levels, although soil conditions remained the same. The simulation group suggested that the “diversity of vascular plant species will rise with increasing nitrogen deposition, then decrease with more rare species being excluded by competition from other plant species.” Basically, nitrogen pollution is the enemy of biodiversity. Mr. Bowman qualifies the discovery, saying, “While the changes are relatively modest, they portend that other more environmentally adverse impacts may be on the horizon in Colorado’s alpine areas.”

Mr. Bowman continued to illustrate the seriousness of the problem, saying, “There is evidence that indicates once these changes occur, they can be difficult if not impossible to reverse. It is best to recognize these early stages before the more harmful later stages happen.” Projected population growth in the greater Denver area and increasing agricultural development suggest that levels of nitrogen pollution will increase to these harmful levels.

Mr. Bowman says the ecosystem that has adapted to the severe climate above the tree line is the most susceptible to the effects of air pollution. Tourists may need to find a new place to fish for trout or observe these plants and animals once the soul becomes acidified.

The National Park Service funded the study which recently published in the June issue of the Journal of Environmental Management. The study was written and conducted by Mr. Bowman, along with coauthors former CU Boulder undergraduate John Murgel (now a graduate student at Colorado State) and Tamara Blett and Ellen Porter of the Air Resources Division of the National Park Service in Lakewood Colorado.

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