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

Written by
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Great 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

  • Outrage + Optimism

    Global Optimism: “We Have to Be At War With Carbon”

    The first 15 minutes of this podcast analyze the Shortcomings of the G7 Summit.

    The second 15-minute segment is a conversation with the CEO of Rolls Royce about its goal to make long-distance flights Net Zero by 2050.

  • Carbon dioxide levels hit historic high despite emissions slowdown during pandemic

    Washington Post: CO2 levels hit highest point yet, even after 15-month idling of transportation, industry and overall carbon emissions.

    Initial air pollution reductions during the Covid-19 pandemic had an immediate measurable impact on global and local air quality. Demand for oil dropped by nearly 9 percent. That didn't stop the atmospheric carbon dioxide level from reaching its highest concentration since records began.

    It's a sign of how difficult it will be to curb overall global emissions enough to prevent the worst consequences of climate change and global warming.

    "Even as international borders closed and global economic activity took a massive hit throughout much of 2020, researchers have found that human-caused emissions rebounded fairly quickly after decreasing sharply early in the pandemic," the Washington Post reported. 

  • Podcast details 13-year mystery of man who disappeared near Smokies

    KnoxNews: "Park Predators" details unsolved disappearance of Michael Hearon

    A well-known podcaster who chronicles bizarre disappearances and crime on or near public lands details the sad story of Michael Hearon, a 51-year-old Maryville man who vanished in August 2008 while tending his 100-acre property in Happy Valley. His Blount County land abutted the Abrams Creek area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

    Hearon's abandoned 4-wheeler was located by searchers, but absolutely no other clues to his disappearance were found despite an extensive search by national park personnel, search parties and family members.

    Journalist Delia D’Ambra said Hearon's case is one of the strangest she's ever investigated, and hopes the podcast will jog memories and generate new leads. The episode debuts June 1 and can be found on a range of podcast services.

  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park announces new deputy superintendent

    Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Monday announced that Alan Sumeriski, a veteran park infrastructure manager in the nation's most-visited national park, will take the helm as deputy superintendent.

    “Alan is a well-respected senior leader in the National Park Service with over 30 years of experience in managing some of the most complex operations in the National Park Service and I’m honored to select him as the next deputy superintendent of the Smokies,” Superintendent Cassius Cash said in a press release announcing Sumeriski's new assignment. “As acting deputy superintendent, Alan has consistently provided strong and innovative parkwide leadership to help us meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.”

    Sumeriski has served as the heavily visited national park's facilities management chief since 2007. His first assignment was as an engineering equipment operator for park service units in the Washington/Baltimore area.

    “Alan provides leadership for over 150 permanent and seasonal staff who care for 384 miles of roads, 146 bridges, 152 historic cemeteries, 27 water and sewer systems, 10 campgrounds, 11 picnic areas, 848 miles of trails, and over 100 historic structures and landscapes,” according to a park release.

  • EPA to announce stricter regulations on HFC emissions

    NYT: EPA plans stricter regulation of HFC emissions

    Hydrofluorocarbons were used on an industrial scale to replace ozone layer-destroying chlorofluorocarbons used in refrigeration, cooling and other applications, but they turned out to be a powerful driver of climate change. Scientists estimate HFCs are 1,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of their cimate-change role.

    Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientists continue research into zero-emission refrigerant technologies

    According to Times reporting: "In proposing a new regulation, Michael S. Regan, the E.P.A. administrator, said the agency aimed to reduce the production and importation of hydrofluorocarbons, which are used in refrigeration and air-conditioning, in the United States by 85 percent over the next 15 years." 

  • It’s time we start wearing our hearts on our sleeves!

    In the spirit of Thinking Globally, Acting Locally, consider what you can do to help Mother Earth and its inhabitants.

    Adopting a more sustainable life style to reduce one's personal ecological footprint is easier to wish for than to accomplish. Some measures that would reap a significant  environmental benefit, such as making a home more energy efficient, may require a substantial investment of physical effort, time and money that will pay back over time only.

    Deliberate choice of clothing, however, is a simple course of action for anyone to start making a big difference in social justice, climate impacts and environmental conservation.

    The fashion industry is responsible for around 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — more than maritime shipping and international flights combined!

    World production of clothing has doubled in the last 15 years. Until the 1950s, it was common for garments to be used until worn out after having been passed along to second and third wearers. Nowadays, that's a rare exception. Most items end up in a landfill within days or weeks after having been purchased and worn just a few times. Massive amounts of overstock items are routinely discarded, not having been used once.

    Low prices — made possible by cheap synthetic fibers produced with fossil fuels and by sweatshops that churn out textiles under often inhumane conditions — contributed to this relatively new phenomenon of consumerism.

    Along with single-use packaging, plastic fibers common in today's textiles are a major source of invisible microplastic fragments that float in the air we breathe and get into the water that leaves the washing machines. Some of these particles may absorb toxic chemicals and be taken up and accumulated by fish, livestock and, eventually, humans.

    Sustainable Jungle, an Australian nonprofit, has an excellent article about the global predicaments caused by the fashion industry. This is a treasure trove of great ideas, practical suggestions, experiences and links to further how-to instructions. It will not only help you get off the fast-fashion treadmill, it will aid you in discovering or creating a style that accentuates your personality.

    Sustainable Jungle: How to Avoid Fast Fashion
    See also ScienceDirect: Plasticenta — First evidence of microplastics in human placenta
  • Hellbenders falling off Highland Rim of Tennessee
    in News
    downloadDr. Brian MIller
     

    MTSU researchers document hellbender's accelerating decline in Middle Tennessee

    (Author’s note: I was aware of the hellbender before interviewing Brian Miller, but did not know the giant salamanders were present on the Highland Rim of Tennessee. Subsequent reading and interviews with other researchers, including Dr. Bill Sutton at Tennessee State University, Nashville, confirm Miller’s statements that hellbenders are vanishing from large portions of Tennessee, and Missouri. The healthy populations in portions of the Great Smoky Mountains and Cherokee National Forest may be an exception to a general trend toward extirpation and, ultimately, extinction).

    Brian Miller has been researching hellbenders for decades. He serves on the faculty of Middle Tennessee State University where he teaches in the biology department and mentors younger researchers, many of whom publish their research.

    He has even developed a digital "Guide to the Reptiles and Amphibians of Middle Tennessee." The guide began more than 30 years ago as a dichotomous key for students in his vertebrate zoology class and now includes hundreds of photographs and exceeds 400 pages.

    Dr. Miller researches the hellbenders of the Highland Rim, the upland that surrounds Nashville and the Great Basin. Populations of hellbenders in streams of this region are perhaps Tennessee's most endangered.

    QUESTION: I noticed that you specialize in herpetofauna. Most of the research listed on your faculty page is focused on amphibians, but with some papers on snakes. Can you comment about your research?

    ANSWER: You are correct that amphibians are my primary research interest, particularly salamanders. However, I also have strong interests in reptiles, and my students and I have conducted research on various species of snakes and turtles.

    When did you become interested in hellbenders?

    Hellbenders have been of interest to me since I first encountered them while enrolled in a course on herpetology at the University of Missouri in 1977. I was fortunate that the professor of that course, Dean Metter, was involved with research on hellbenders and I began to assist with his research in 1978, in collaboration with Robert Wilkinson at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri.

    Chris Petersen was working on his master's degree with Dr. Wilkinson at that time and he matriculated to the University of Missouri a couple of years later to start on his Ph.D, which was also with hellbenders. Chris and I spent time in the field gathering data for his Ph.D. project until I moved to Washington State to work on my Ph.D.

    I was hired into the biology department at Middle Tennessee State University in 1989 and began working with hellbenders in this state in 1990. At that time, I was able to locate populations in several rivers in Middle Tennessee, including a large population in the Collins River. I decided to concentrate my efforts on this population and one in the Buffalo River.

    Of note, the population I worked with in the Collins River was dominated by large adults, whereas the population in the Buffalo River consisted of many age classes, including young individuals.

    The Collins River situation was like what I was familiar with in Missouri and Arkansas populations. Unfortunately, by the early 2000s the population I was working with in the Collins River was gone; however, populations remain in the Buffalo River. My research with hellbenders during the past decade has been concentrated in streams in the Western Highland Rim.

    Do you work with both subspecies, the Ozark, and the Eastern hellbender?

    I worked with both subspecies while a student at the University of Missouri when assisting with projects in the Metter lab, but since I moved to Tennessee, I have worked only with Tennessee populations.

    What do you perceive as the greatest threats to hellbender populations?

    I am not certain why most populations of hellbenders are in decline rangewide, but suspect that habitat alteration, including sedimentation, and disease are involved in many if not all areas where declines are occurring. Lack of recruitment of young is a common theme of populations that decline. 

  • At least $35 million headed to Smokies for southern Foothills Parkway overhauls and maintenance facilities improvements
    in News

    grsm_terrain_features.jpgThe crest of the Smokies and its peaks are shown from Look Rock on the Foothills Parkway.  National Park Service

    Southern stretch of Foothills Parkway to get $33 million overhaul

    The National Park Service will repave and improve the entire southern stretch of Foothills Parkway and design a replacement of the outdated maintenance facilities at Sugarlands thanks to funding from the Great American Outdoors Act.

    Both projects will cost a combined $40 million and be paid for via a foundation established as part of the overall legislation passed by Congress in 2020. 

    The Department of the Interior will spend a total of $1.6 billion from the Legacy Restoration Fund this year alone as part of a long-range goal to improve infrastructure and catch up on maintenance needs in national parks and other federally managed lands, according to a release. National public lands across the country, including Great Smoky Mountains National Park, have long faced maintenance deficits totaling billions of dollars. 

    The Foothills Parkway and Sugarlands work is one of 165 deferred maintenance projects that will be funded this year. Infrastructure improvements are also planned for sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park.

    The $33.6 million in planned improvements to the parkway between Walland and Tallassee (from mile marker 55 to 72) will include enhanced safety features and milling and replacement of the pavement.

    “The road rehabilitation will include pullouts and parking areas, replacing steel backed timber guardrail, and repair, reconstruction and repointing of stone masonry bridge parapet walls and the walls along Look Rock Overlook,” according to interior department documents.

    “Other work will include removing and resetting stone curb, replacing/repairing of the drainage structures, stabilizing roadside ditches, overlaying or reconstructing paved waterways, stabilizing and reseeding the shoulder, installing pavement markings, replacing regulatory and NPS signs, and constructing ramps with curb cuts to provide access to interpretive panels and to meet federal accessibility guidelines.”

    “The work proposed in this project would reduce the hazards and improve safety for park visitors and employees,” according to the data sheet. 

    The Legacy Restoration Fund will also cover the $3.5 million cost of a design/build plan to improve and update the expansive and deteriorating maintenance yard at Sugarlands.

    “The buildings, driveways, and parking areas associated with the maintenance yard have not been renovated or rehabilitated in decades,” according to a data sheet.

    “There are safety hazards, inadequate space or capacity for park maintenance and operations personnel, and facilities that are entirely insufficient for essential park operations and maintenance. The condition of many buildings is so poor that replacement and disposal is likely the only practical option. This project will complete predesign project programming and budgeting and develop a Design Build RFP for the rehabilitation or replacement of facilities and associated utilities, parking, and grounds.” 

    Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials did not immediately respond to an email requesting additional information on possible future projects and to what extent national infrastructure plans proposed by the Biden administration might benefit the park, which is the most-visited in the nation.

    Here’s a link to the full Department of the Interior National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund Fund release. Here are the Foothills Parkway and Sugarlands maintenance yard project data sheets.

  • The Appalachian Voice: Critter corridors aspire to provide Safe Passage for roaming mountain wildlife
    in News

     bears by roadBears stand by a roadside guardrail.  Bridget Donaldson, Virginia Transportation Research Council

    Safe Passage initiative calls for wildlife and human protections along mountain highways

    Hellbender Press is proud to republish this story as part of our partnership with Boone-based The Appalachian Voice.
     

    Jean Loveday is driving her husband, Tom, home from a doctor’s appointment in Johnson City, Tennessee. Their Toyota pickup truck is winding along Interstate 26, not far from the North Carolina state line north of Asheville.

    Suddenly Loveday sees something black tumbling down the mountain and out into the highway in her peripheral view. “Oh no, Tom, oh no!” she mumbles. Loveday realizes it’s a bear cub hurtling toward them. She attempts to avoid hitting it by steering into the median, but vehicle and animal seem destined to collide.

    “It all happened so fast,” she says today. “I don’t know where its mother was, whether the cub was following her or on its own. We stopped. It moved for a few minutes, and then was still. All I could think for days was, ‘I killed a bear cub!’ I hope I never, ever have to go through that again.”

    Loveday is overwhelmed with emotion as she relates this sad memory, one shared by many motorists in the Southern Appalachians.

    “I don’t care where you are on the political spectrum, no one wants to hit an animal with their vehicle,” says Jeff Hunter, senior program manager for National Parks Conservation Association, an organization devoted to protecting and enhancing the national parks system for future generations.

    In early 2017, Hunter convened a group of people who were concerned about the rising numbers of bear, deer and elk being hit on another highway that straddles the Tennessee–North Carolina border—Interstate 40 near Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Some years have seen as many as 70 road-killed bears in this curvy 28-mile section of road alone, and elk reintroduced to the park in 2001 are now crossing the highway to expand their range. 

    “Human infrastructure is making it increasingly difficult for wildlife to follow their natural patterns of movement across the landscape,” says Hugh Irwin, a landscape conservation planner with The Wilderness Society who raised concerns back in the 1990s about I-40 being a barrier to wildlife movement. “Historically too little thought and planning has gone into wildlife needs, and our current infrastructure fails to provide for wildlife passage.”

    Passionate discussions led to action, and soon more than 80 individuals from nearly 20 federal, state, Tribal, and non-governmental organizations were collaborating to make this section of roadway more permeable for wildlife and safer for people. 

    Roadkill’s “Pernicious Twin”

    The intersection of roads and wildlife is a safety issue that is not unique to North Carolina and Tennessee. According to the Federal Highway Administration, an estimated two million large mammals are killed on roads in the United States each year, resulting in more than 26,000 human injuries and at least 200 human fatalities.

    For years, road ecologists around the world have been working to mitigate highways that were originally designed without consideration for wildlife. Europe, Canada, Mexico, and many U.S. states have already created effective wildlife road crossings. Recent articles and videos featuring large wildlife overpasses in Utah and Texas have been shared widely on social media.

    Senior Research Ecologist Marcel Huijser (pronounced ‘Houser’) with the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University in Bozeman has contributed to road ecology studies for more than two decades. He cites three main reasons why people care about this issue: the desire for wildlife conservation, concern for human safety, and economics. “No matter who you are, where you live, or what you do for a living, you’re going to care about at least one of these,” he says.

    On November 26, 2019, The Atlantic ran an auspicious road ecology article by Ben Goldfarb titled “How Roadkill Became an Environmental Disaster.” Focusing on the giant anteaters of Brazil, whose range is—you guessed it—bisected by a huge highway, the epic, riveting story introduces readers to Evelyn the anteater and a cast of road-weary researchers. One particular Goldfarb quote became the motto for researchers assessing wildlife movement and mortality in the Pigeon River Gorge: “Collisions may be road ecology’s most obvious concern, but fragmentation is roadkill’s pernicious twin.”

    Conservationists point out the gravity of individual animals being killed on roads. But when they no longer try to cross, it can signal an even more dire situation.

    “When wildlife finally stops even trying to cross, the highway has become a barrier,” says Hunter. “The ‘barrier effect’ is not to be confused with the concrete Jersey barriers that prevent many individual crossings. When a whole population stops crossing the road, that means their habitat is now fragmented, preventing the healthy genetic exchange that species need to thrive.”

    Ron Sutherland works to restore, reconnect and re-establish wildlife corridors that have been fragmented throughout the eastern United States in his role as chief scientist with Wildlands Network, the organization that kicked off discussions about mitigation to I-40 in 2015. He defines habitat connectivity as the degree to which organisms are able to move freely across the landscape.

    “Habitat connectivity can be very high, such as in a remote and intact wilderness,” he says, “or it can be very low, such as in a city park surrounded on all sides by busy highways.”

    Sutherland points out that people often get wildlife corridors and wildlife road crossings confused.

    “A wildlife corridor is the term we use for a defined movement pathway that, if protected or restored, would provide essential habitat connectivity for one or more species,” he says. “They can be easy to see—such as a vegetated trail alongside a roadway—or nearly invisible and defined only by the movements of the animals.”

    A wildlife road crossing, on the other hand, is “a structure that is designed to allow wildlife to safely cross over or under a busy road,” he says. “So, of course it follows that one of the best places to put wildlife road crossings is where you have a wildlife corridor that gets cut off by a highway.”

    Read the rest of the story at The Appalachian Voice. 

  • Health officials: Knoxville air quality on sustained upswing
    WBIR: Knoxville air quality data indicates sustained improvements

    The Knox County Health Department reports that fine particles declined by half between 2007 and 2018. Ozone levels also remained below national standards during that period. The combined pollution reductions — achieved through tighter emissions standards on power plants and vehicles — have resulted in the cleanest air in Knox County since 1999, according to the Health Department.

    Here's a link to the full 2019 Knox County Community Health Assessment.