The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

The days the Earth stood still (Part 1): Covid cleared the air in the lonely Smokies

Written by
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGreat Smoky Mountains National Park Air Resource Specialist is seen at the Look Rock air quality research station.   Courtesy National Park Service

The lack of regional and local vehicle traffic during the pandemic greatly reduced measurable pollution in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

This is your Hellbender weekend read, and the first in an occasional Hellbender Press series about the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the natural world

Great Smoky Mountains National Park shut down for six weeks in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic. Recorded emissions reductions during that period in part illustrate the role motor vehicles play in the park's vexing air-quality issues. The full cascade of effects from the pollution reductions are still being studied.

Hellbender Press interviewed park air quality specialist Jim Renfro about the marked reduction of carbon dioxide and other pollutants documented during the park closure during the pandemic, and the special scientific opportunities it presents.  He responded to the following questions via email.

Hellbender Press: You cited “several hundred tons" in pollutant reductions during an interview with WBIR of Knoxville (in 2020). What types of air pollutants does this figure include? 

Answer: Carbon dioxide (CO2) would be most of the tons reduced from the lack of motor vehicles in the park during the park shutdown because of the pandemic.  Carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NOx),  volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and particulate matter are other emissions that were lower, but to a much lesser extent.  

HP: During what time frame?

A: It was based on when the primary park roads were closed, for about a six-week period from March 24 through May 9 (2020) 

HP: Was this based on data collected at the Look Rock air-quality monitoring station or monitoring sites throughout the park? 

A: No, it was estimated reductions in air emissions (tons) from using the park's emissions inventory for criteria air pollutants and greenhouse gases coupled with the reduction in park visitation data for the period of the park shutdown.

HP: Was this a result of reduced auto travel in the park? 

A: Yes. 

HP: A lot of emissions, of course, come from outside of the park. Was the improvement in air quality also a function of reduced pollutants coming from outside the park? 

A: The documented reduction was with emissions, not air quality. Air quality analysis is still under way to look at changes in air pollutants. 

HP: What do you think the primary reasons for the air quality improvements were?  

A: If there were reductions in air pollutants (and that is still being analyzed by EPA and NPS Air Resources Division), it was due primarily to the reduction in motor vehicle emissions in and near the park (and regionally).

HP: Did you purposefully set out to quantify the pandemic’s effect on air quality, or was this an “accidental” discovery? 

A: We did not purposefully set out to quantify the pandemic's effect on air quality. Monitoring efforts continued during the pandemic and provided a unique and unexpected opportunity to characterize the differences in air emissions (from park closures and limited motor vehicle emissions) and air pollutants (which will take longer to look at laboratory analysis after quality assured analysis).


HP: How is this a positive for the Smokies and park visitors?

A: It allows us to look at the changes in emissions and air quality from the reduction in visitation and motor vehicle emissions. 

HP: Have you ever seen a period of such drastic reduced pollutants in the park?   

A: No. There have been times when the park is closed due to inclement weather, but that usually only lasts a few days at most. The park closure was about six weeks. 

HP: Was this a truly unique period for research, and how can that baseline be used moving forward?  

A: I think we look at differences in emissions and air quality during this same time period in other years that didn't experience a pandemic and compare those to look at key differences, both in the monitoring and the modeling of air quality.

HP: Visitation was very high when the park reopened. Were those air quality gains quickly reversed, or did the park enjoy better air quality through the past year?  

A: Air quality continues to improve here at GRSM over the past 20 years. Much of the recent monitoring data that was collected during 2020 is still going through QA/QC procedures in the labs before it is ready to share.  So, too early to tell.

HP: What are the air quality trends over the past 10 years? Improvements or backsliding? 

A: Air quality has continued to improve over the past 10 years for ozone, particulate matter, acid deposition, and regional haze.

HP: What are the main reasons for air quality improvements during that period?  

A: Continued emission reductions of sulfur dioxide (improves visibility, acid deposition and particulate matter) from power plants and lower nitrogen oxides (improves ground level ozone, acid deposition, particulate matter, and regional haze) from power plants and motor vehicles.

HP: Have you yet better parsed the data to get a fuller look at how the 2020 improvements might affect “downstream” natural attributes of the park such as acid deposition or mercury contamination? 

A: No. Final QA/QC'd data is not available for much of the 2020 air quality data.  

HP: Will this period of reduced emissions have a positive effect on other park resources?  

A: Most of the emission reductions were short-term reductions during the shutdown period. Once the full and final data is available, it will be easier to evaluate the changes in seasonal and annual air pollutants.

HP: What is your projection for park air quality over the next 10 years? 

A: I know from some of the regional haze forecasted modeling projecting out to the year 2028, conducted by the states under the Regional Haze Rule, there will be additional emission reductions of SO2 and NOx, resulting in less regional haze, improved visibility, and lower acid deposition.

HP: What needs to be done to ensure improvements occur, or continue? Are there any new threats, or is it the same list of usual pollutant suspects from over the years? 

A: The NPS continues to work with states, EPA and the public to monitor air pollutants in order to maintain air quality standards and protect ecosystems. Acid deposition, regional haze, ozone, particulate matter, and mercury bioaccumulation are still air pollution concerns here at the park.

Rate this item
(2 votes)
Published in Air

Related items

  • Celebrate the wild ties that bind Americans on Public Lands Day 2022 — Saturday, Sept. 24

    fontana

    GATLINBURG — The director of the National Park Service is expected in Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Saturday to celebrate National Public Lands Day.

    Director Chuck Sams plans to make some remarks in appreciation for the volunteers who help backstop national park maintenance costs before citizens fan out for various tasks across the park. Sams is the first Native American to head the park service, and he will be joined by Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Chief Richard G. Sneed.

  • Enviros to TVA: Retire the fossil-fuel pacifier
    in News

    Cumberland FPTVA’s Cumberland Fossil Plant near Clarksville is the subject of a suit filed by environmental groups, including Appalachian Voices and Southern Environmental Law Center.  Tennessee Valley Authority

    SELC, others file suit in hopes of dissuading TVA from future fossil options

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    CLARKSVILLE — On behalf of the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices, the Southern Environmental Law Center asked TVA to prepare a supplemental environmental statement to address concerns with TVA’s draft environmental impact statement, which details the agency’s plans to retire the Cumberland Fossil Plant.

    The Cumberland Fossil Plant, about 22 miles southwest of Clarksville, is TVA’s largest coal-fired power station and was built between 1968 and 1973. TVA plans to retire each unit of the two-unit, coal-fired steam-generation plant separately: one unit no later than 2030, and the second unit no later than 2033. But the plant will need to be replaced, and TVA is currently considering three alternatives to fossil fuel, including natural gas and solar energy, according to its draft EIS.

    (Tennessee Valley Authority already plans to close down the Knoxville-area Bull Run fossil plant in Claxton next year).

  • Citizen scientists are taking stock in Smokies, and the inventory keeps increasing
    in News

    1 smokies most wanted infographic credit Emma Oxford GSMA

    This story was provided by Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

    Next demonstration on Thursday, Oct. 20

    GATLINBURG — Great Smoky Mountains National Park is celebrating the success of a community science project led by nonprofit partner Discover Life in America (DLiA) called Smokies Most Wanted. The initiative encourages visitors to record life they find in the park through the iNaturalist nature app. DLiA and the park use these data points to map species range, track exotic species, and even discover new kinds of life in the park. 

    “iNaturalist usage in the Smokies has skyrocketed from just four users in 2011, to 3,800 in 2020, to now more than 7,100 users,” said Will Kuhn, DLIA’s director of science and research. 

    In August, the project reached a milestone, surpassing 100,000 records of insects, plants, fungi, and other Smokies life submitted through the app. Among them are 92 new species not previously seen in the park.

  • SACE sees many silver linings in Senate climate bill; House passage expected
    in News

    UN Climate ChangeA rainbow pierces gray skies during the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. United Nations

    Climate activists stress positives of Senate climate bill despite its shortcomings 

    Amy Rawe is communications director for Knoxville-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

    KNOXVILLE — The U.S. Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), an estimated $430 billion bill, of which approximately $370 billion will be allocated to investments in clean energy and to address climate change.

    It’s the single largest climate investment in U.S. history, and if it passes the House, will put the country on a path to be able to achieve roughly 40 percent emissions reduction from 2005 levels by 2030, reestablishing our influence in meeting the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

  • Falling trees accountable for very few deaths in Smokies, but they do happen

    CITIZEN TIMES: Child killed by falling tree was a very rare twist of horrible fate

    Karen Chavez of the Asheville Citizen Times wrote a great article on tree-related deaths in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and beyond following the death last week of a Georgia child killed by a falling tree as she was occupying a tent in Elkmont Campground.

    She reports the death of the child was only the 11th tree-linked death in the national park’s history.

  • Updated: Summer of weather anomalies continues as deadly floods ravage SE Kentucky
    in News

    ky floodsHeavy flooding is seen in eastern Kentucky this weekend. State of Kentucky/Office of Gov. Andy Beshear

    Another round of severe flooding hits the Southern Appalachian region

    UPDATED: The death toll from last week’s unprecedented flooding in Kentucky reached at least 29, as some areas contended with additional flooding over the weekend. Fifteen of those, including four children, died in Knott County, which is about 100 miles north of Kingsport.

    Water service to nearly 67,000 connections has been affected, as well as 17 wastewater-treatment systems in eastern Kentucky, according to Gov. Andy Beshear’s office. 

    “We are currently experiencing one of the worst, most devastating flooding events in Kentucky’s history. The situation is dynamic and ongoing,” Beshear said in a statement.

    “What we are going to see coming out of this is massive property damage and we expect loss of life. Hundreds will lose their homes. And this will be yet another event that will take not months, but years, for our families to rebuild and recover from.”

  • Falling tree kills child in Great Smokies

    ELKMONT — A 9-year-old girl died early Wednesday after a tree fell on a tent she was occupying in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

    The unidentified child was among a group of people camping in Elkmont Campground when the red maple, 2 feet in diameter, fell shortly after midnight and crushed the girl in her tent, according to the National Park Service.

  • Has the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians lost its ‘right way’ at Exit 407?
    in News

    Will West LongCherokee tribal council member, historian and ethnographer Will West Long holds a traditional Cherokee mask, which he often recreated. He was an active chronicler of Cherokee custom, heritage and tradition and died in 1947 on the Qualla Reservation in Swain County, North Carolina. WikiCommons

    As plans gel for massive new developments, has the Eastern Band lost its ancient way?

    SEVIERVILLE — The Tennessee Department of Transportation is eyeing a second interchange for exit 407 at Highway 66 along Interstate I-40 in Sevier County. 

    Exit 407, already one of the most congested interchanges in Southern Appalachia, accesses the main highway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in the nation. The park reported a record 14 million visitors in 2021.

    The exit also serves crowds flocking to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.

    But the new interchange would primarily serve a 200-acre development to be called Exit 407: The Gateway to Adventure.   

    Scheduled to open spring 2023, and fully operational in 2024, it’s expected to attract 6.7 million people annually. The first phase includes a theme park and a 74,000-square-foot convenience store with 120 gas pumps, making it the world’s largest such store.

  • Torrential rains in Smokies destroy trails, roads and other infrastructure
    in News

    7.13.22 Porters Creek Road washoutA washout is seen along Porters Creek Road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park following torrential rain on July 12. National Park Service

    Flooding causes Smokies damage, prompts water advisory for Sevierville 

    SEVIERVILLE — Extremely heavy rain on July 12 in the Smoky Mountains caused a cascade of problems now just coming to light.

    Sevierville and Sevier County issued a boil-water advisory early Thursday after debris flushed by Tuesday’s floodwaters clogged the city water utility’s main intake on the French Broad River, leading to pressure decreases that opened up lines to possible outside contamination.

    In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Greenbrier campground was closed indefinitely after the swollen Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River wiped out roads, trails and bridges in the area.

  • U.S. Supreme Court’s recent clean-air ruling renews spotlight on fossil-energy producers like TVA
    in News

    TVA 4 Cumberland FP

    Supreme Court air-pollution ruling calls into stark context all that must be done

    This story was originally published by Tennessee Lookout.

    KNOXVILLE — The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling limiting the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon emissions that cause climate change has renewed the spotlight on the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s largest public utility and Tennessee’s primary source of electricity.

    The case involved EPA efforts to implement a key provision of the Clean Air Act in a challenge brought by 15 Republican-led states. That provision, which never went into effect, would have required existing power plants to shift from dirty sources of energy — such as coal — to cleaner sources, including solar and wind, as part of an urgent effort to reduce global warming.