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Scenic views and native vegetation images from parks within Southern Colorado Plateau Network

Studies and Monitoring

Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park (NP), Colorado, has its own unique environmental concerns based on its particular ecology. Air quality studies and monitoring programs at Mesa Verde NP focus on the deposition of nitrogen, sulfur, and mercury; and the impacts of dust events. Click on the tabs below to review air quality studies and key scientific references at Mesa Verde NP, as well as to access information on air quality monitoring in the park.

  • Studies & Projects
  • Monitoring & Data
  • Key References

Ongoing research in Mesa Verde NP, Colorado:

Clearing the Air in the Four Corners

Oil and gas production, coal-fired power plants, and population growth in the Four Corners region results in significant emissions of air pollutants—including nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and mercury—and the formation of ozone. Growing concerns about degraded air quality and haze led to the formation of the Four Corners Air Quality Group, whose members represent a wide variety of political jurisdictions and the public. The Group has engaged in a broad and inclusive collaborative process to improve air quality through regional air quality planning. Members include the States of New Mexico and Colorado, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Tribes, and concerned citizens. In November 2007, the Group compiled options for reducing regional air pollution in the Four Corners Air Quality Task Force Report of Mitigation Options [pdf, 9.1 MB]. The Group continues to track air quality issues in the area including actions under the regional haze rule to improve visibility and proposals to strengthen the national ozone standards.

Nitrogen and Sulfur Impacts

Measured amounts of nitrogen deposition are relatively high, but effects upon park resources have not been evaluated. Ongoing efforts continue to monitor atmospheric ammonia, a nitrogen compound indicative of agricultural activity, via passive receptors.
find data »

Airborne Toxic, Including Mercury, Contaminants Impacts

Mercury deposition is significantly elevated at Mesa Verde NP, primarily due to emissions from nearby and regional coal-burning power plants (NADP 2010). However, a pilot study did not find significant accumulation of mercury in park fish and wildlife. Nevertheless, because of the small numbers of species and individuals examined, the study’s authors did not preclude the possibility of mercury bioaccumulation in the park and suggested that future studies focus on birds and bats eating aquatic or predatory insects and fish-eating mammals and birds (Nydick and Williams 2010). Soil mercury levels in burned, compared to unburned, areas of the park continue to be analyzed in partnership with the University of Colorado Boulder and the Mountain Studies Institute.

Also, baseline data on reactive gaseous mercury (RGM), a type of airborne mercury that is deposited via dry deposition, are currently being collected at Mesa Verde NP and other locations throughout the southwestern U.S. (Sather et al. 2010 [pdf, 1.3 MB]). Dry deposition of mercury is particularly important to measure in arid regions where rainfall amounts are low and rain events are sporadic and seasonal. As a result, on an annual basis more mercury deposits in dry form than in wet form. A study in arid areas of New Mexico found that the total deposition of mercury (including wet and dry) was 2.4 times greater than wet only (Caldwell et al. 2006). RGM is thought to be the type of mercury most readily deposited to ecosystems and to be more bioavailable than other types. find data »

Ground-Level Ozone Impacts

While ozone concentrations have increased over time at Mesa Verde NP (NPS 2010 [pdf, 2.8 MB]), a one-time assessment on the nearby San Juan Public Lands in southwestern Colorado found no foliar ozone injury symptoms on the ozone-sensitive plants including Cutleaf coneflower and Spreading dogbane (Nydick 2009 [pdf, 2.4 MB]). find data »

Visibility Impacts, Including that from Dust

Mesa Verde NP now participates in a multi-agency dust monitoring network spread across the Colorado plateau. A special sampler collects airborne particles, while a live webcam records dust storms in the area. Large dust deposition events have occurred over the past several springs, reducing visibility and causing restrictions in air traffic. Dust deposited on snow can also cause the early onset of snowmelt, with subsequent reduced runoff.

Air quality monitoring information and data access:

Air Pollutant/Impact

Monitoring Program

Sites and Data Access

Nitrogen Wet deposition NADP/NTN
Dry deposition CASTNet
Mercury MDN
Ozone NPS-GPMP
Visibility IMPROVE

Abbreviations in the above table:

    CASTNet: EPA Clean Air Status and Trends Network
    GPMP: Gaseous Pollutant Monitoring Program
    MDN: Mercury Deposition Network IMPROVE: Interagency Monitoring of Protected Visual Environments
    NADP: National Atmospheric Deposition Program
    NPS: National Park Service
    NTN: National Trends Network
    VIEWS: Visibility Information Exchange Web System

For more information regarding monitoring and data assessments conducted by the National Park Service, link to the NPS Air Quality Monitoring Program or to the NPS Air Quality Monitoring History Database for a history of active and inactive monitoring sites at Mesa Verde NP.

Key air quality related references from Mesa Verde NP, Colorado:

Binkley, D., Giardina, C., Dockersmith, I., Morse, D., Scruggs, M., Tonnessen, K. 1997. Status of Air Quality and Related Values in Class I National Parks and Monuments of the Colorado Plateau. National Park Service, Air Resources Division, Denver, Colorado. Chapter 11: Mesa Verde National Park. Available at http://www.nature.nps.gov/air/Pubs/pdf/reviews/cp/CP11meve.pdf (pdf, 592 KB).

Caldwell, C. A., Swartzendruber, P. Prestbo, E. 2006. Concentration and dry deposition of mercury species in arid south central New Mexico (2001–2002). Environ. Sci. Technol. 40: 7535–7540.

[CDPHE] Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. 2009. Colorado Fish Tissue Study. Available at http://www.cdphe.state.co.us/wq/fishcon/index.html.

Fenn, M. E., Haeuber, R., Tonnesen, G. S., Baron, J. S., Grossman-Clarke, S., Hope, D., Jaffe, D. A., Copeland, S., Geiser, L., Rueth, H. M., and Sickman, J. O. 2003. Nitrogen emissions, deposition and monitoring in the western United States. Bioscience 53: 391–403.

Floyd-Hanna, L., Hanna, D., Romme, W. H., Crews, T. 2004. Non-native invasions following fire in Southwestern Colorado: Long-term effectiveness of mitigation treatments and future predictions. Joint Fire Science Program, product number 1496-BLM2-454.

Four Corners Air Quality Task Force. 2007. Four Corners Air Quality Task Force Report of Mitigation Options. Available at http://www.nmenv.state.nm.us/aqb/4C/Docs/4CAQTF_Report_FINAL.pdf
(pdf, 9.1 MB).

[IMPROVE] Interagency Monitoring of Protected Visual Environments. 2010. Improve Summary Data. Available at http://vista.cira.colostate.edu/improve/Data/IMPROVE/summary_data.htm.

Kohut, R. 2004. Assessing the Risk of Foliar Injury from Ozone on Vegetation in Parks in the Southern Colorado Plateau Network. Available at http://www.nature.nps.gov/air/Pubs/pdf/03Risk/scpnO3RiskOct04.pdf (pdf, 254 MB).

[NADP] National Atmospheric Deposition Program. 2010. National Atmospheric Deposition Program 2009 Annual Summary. NADP Data Report 2010-01. Illinois State Water Survey, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL.

[NPS] National Park Service. 2010. Air Quality in National Parks: 2009 Annual Performance and Progress Report. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/ARD/NRR—2010/266. National Park Service, Denver, Colorado. Available at http://www.nature.nps.gov/air/Pubs/pdf/gpra/AQ_Trends_In_Parks_2009_Final_Web.pdf (pdf, 2.8 MB).

Nydick, K. 2009. Assessment of Foliar Ozone Injury: Pilot Project. A Report to the San Juan Public Lands Center (USFS/BLM). Mountain Studies Institute, San Juan Mountains, Colorado. Available at http://www.mountainstudies.org/sites/default/files/pdf/research/ozone/Ozone_Injury_Report_
MSI_SJPLC_Nov09.pdf
(pdf, 2.4 MB).

Nydick, K. 2010. Mercury in Precipitation and Lakes of Southwestern Colorado. Mountain Studies Institute Report 2010-02.

Nydick, K. and Williams, K. 2010. Final Report: Pilot Study of the Ecological Effects of Mercury Deposition in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. Mountain Studies Institute Report 2010-01.

Peterson, S. A., Van Sickle, J., Herlihy, A. T., and Hughes, R. M. 2007. Mercury Concentration in Fish from Streams and Rivers throughout the Western United States. Environ. Sci. Technol. 41: 58–65.

Sather, M., Mukerjee, S., Landis, M., Mathew, J., Brunette, B., Karlstrom, J., Van der Jagt, G., Lewis, N., Faverman, J. 2010. Passive Monitoring of Ambient Reactive Gaseous Mercury in the Four Corners Area and Eastern Oklahoma. Presented at the 2010 NADP Annual Meeting and Scientific Symposium, Lake Tahoe, CA, October 21, 2010. Available at http://nadp.isws.illinois.edu/meetings/fall2010/post/session4/Sather.pdf (pdf, 1.3 MB).

Sullivan, T. J., McDonnell, T. C., McPherson, G. T., Mackey, S. D., Moore, D. 2011a. Evaluation of the sensitivity of inventory and monitoring national parks to nutrient enrichment effects from atmospheric nitrogen deposition: main report. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/ARD/NRR—2011/313. National Park Service, Denver, Colorado. Available at www.nature.nps.gov/air/permits/aris/networks/n-sensitivity.cfm.

Sullivan, T. J., McDonnell, T. C., McPherson, G. T., Mackey, S. D., Moore, D. 2011b. Evaluation of the sensitivity of inventory and monitoring national parks to nutrient enrichment effects from atmospheric nitrogen deposition: Southern Colorado Plateau Network (SCPN). Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/ARD/NRR—2011/330. National Park Service, Denver, Colorado. Available at http://www.nature.nps.gov/air/Pubs/pdf/n-sensitivity/scpn_n_sensitivity_2011-02.pdf (pdf, 7.4 MB).


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Pollutants including nitrogen, sulfur, mercury, ozone, and fine particles like dust affect resources such as streams, springs, soils, and scenic vistas. Find out how on our Mesa Verde NP Air Pollution Impacts web page.

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Last Updated: August 08, 2011