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Studies and Monitoring

Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park (NP), Montana, has its own unique environmental concerns based on its particular ecology. Air quality studies and monitoring programs at Glacier NP focus on toxic air contaminants including mercury, and nitrogen deposition. Click on the tabs below to review air quality studies and key scientific references at Glacier NP, as well as to access information on air quality monitoring in the park.

  • Studies & Projects
  • Monitoring & Data
  • Key References

Ongoing research in Glacier NP, Montana:

Airborne Toxic, including Mercury, Impacts

Air currents transport toxic contaminants such as pesticides, industrial pollutants, and mercury from their sources, and deposit these toxics in rain, snow, and dry deposition (e.g., dust) at Glacier NP. Research findings from the Western Airborne Contaminants Assessment Project, Rocky Mountain Regional Snowpack Chemistry Monitoring Study, Glacier National Park Fisheries Inventory and Monitoring, and other studies found airborne contaminants in fish, vegetation, snow, and lake sediments in the park (Downs and Stafford 2009; Downs et al. 2011; Hageman et al. 2006; Ingersoll et al. 2007; Krabbenhoft et al. 2002; Landers et al. 2010; Landers et al. 2008; Mast et al. 2006 [pdf, 4.4 MB]; Watras et al. 1995). Pesticide and mercury concentrations in some park fish exceeded human and/or wildlife health thresholds (Ackerman et al. 2008; Downs and Stafford 2009; Downs et al. 2011; Landers et al. 2010; Landers et al. 2008; Schwindt et al. 2008). Results suggest that pesticide contamination at the park is due largely to regional pesticide use (Hageman et al. 2010). Additionally, reproductive abnormalities were detected in some male fish at the park, often indicating exposure to such contaminants (Schwindt et al. 2009). Follow-up research is examining the extent to which contaminants are disrupting reproductive organs in park fish. The Montana Contaminants Workshop was held to address regional concerns regarding contaminant distribution and effects, and resulted in the development of Contaminants in Fish and the Human Health Perspective (pdf, 330 KB) for Glacier NP. find data »

The park is also obtaining baseline values for selenium in fish (Downs et al. 2011), as there is growing scientific evidence that the heavy metal affects the fate of mercury in aquatic food chains and may moderate its toxicity. However, the protective effects of selenium against mercury toxicity rely on a fine balance of selenium in the diet as it, too, can be toxic to organisms (Peterson et al. 2009).

Nitrogen and Sulfur Impacts

Nitrogen and sulfur deposition are comparatively low at Glacier NP. However, concentrations of ammonium in wet deposition are increasing (Clow et al. 2003; Ingersoll et al. 2007; NPS 2010 [pdf, 2.8 MB];), possibly as a result of nearby agricultural operations. Ammonium contributes to total nitrogen deposition, which may harm sensitive ecosystems. Nitrogen emissions from vehicles, powerplants, and increasing oil and gas development result in nitrate deposition (Peterson et al. 1998 [pdf, 1.1 MB]), which also contributes to total nitrogen deposition in the park, further exacerbating potential effects. find data »

Many high elevation, headwater lakes and vegetation communities in the park are potentially sensitive to the acidification or nutrient enrichment effects of deposition. Both sulfur and nitrogen may acidify lakes with low buffering capacity (Ellis et al. 1992; Peterson et al. 1998 [pdf, 1.1 MB]; Sullivan et al. 2011a; Sullivan et al. 2011b [pdf, 11.1 MB]). Nitrogen has been shown to cause changes in both aquatic and terrestrial alpine plant communities, but this effect has not been adequately studied in the park (Bowman 2009; Saros 2009).

Other factors such as climate change may exacerbate the effects of nitrogen deposition. Glaciers act as sinks for atmospheric pollutants, accumulating nitrogen overtime. As the climate continues to warm, research has demonstrated that melting glaciers release stored nitrogen to downstream lakes, upsetting natural nutrient cycling and causing changes in lake ecosystems (Saros et al. 2010).

Air quality monitoring information and data access:

Air Pollutant/Impact

Monitoring Program

Sites and Data Access

Mercury NADP/MDN
Other Toxics & Mercury WACAP
Nitrogen & Sulfur Wet deposition NADP/NTN
Dry deposition CASTNet
Ozone NPS–GPMP
Visibility IMPROVE

Abbreviations in the above table:

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

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 Glacier NP.

Key air quality related references from Glacier NP, Montana:

Ackerman, L. K., Schwindt, A. R., Massey Simonich, S. L., Koch, D. C., Blett, T. F., Schreck, C. B., Kent, M. L., Landers, D. H. 2008. Atmospherically Deposited PBDEs, Pesticides, PCBs, and PAHs in Western U.S. National Park Fish: Concentrations and Consumption Guidelines. Environmental Science and Technology 42: 2334–2341.

Bowman, W. D. 2009. Critical loads of atmospheric N deposition in alpine vegetation in Rocky Mountain and Glacier National Parks. NPS Final Completion Report.

Clow, D. W., Sickman, J. O., Striegl, R. G., Krabbenhoft, D. P., Elliott, J.G., Dornblaser, M., Roth, D. A., and Campbell, D.H. 2003. Changes in the chemistry of lakes and precipitation in high-elevation national parks in the western United States, 1985–1999. Water Resour. Res. 39(6): 1171.

Clow, D. W., Striegl, R. G., Nanus, L., Mast, M. A., Campbell, D. H., Krabbenhoft, D. P. 2002. Chemistry of Selected High-Elevation Lakes in Seven National Parks in the Western United States. Water, Air, and Soil Pollution: Focus 2: 139–164.

Downs, C. C. and Stafford, C. 2009. Glacier National Park Fisheries Inventory and Monitoring Annual Report, 2008. National Park Service, Glacier National Park, West Glacier, Montana.

Downs, C. C., Stafford, C., Langner, H., and Muhlfeld, C. C. 2011. Glacier National Park Fisheries Inventory and Monitoring Bi-Annual Report, 2009–2010. National Park Service, Glacier National Park, West Glacier, Montana.

Ellis, B. K., Stanford, J. A., Craft, J. A., Chess, D. W., Gregory, G. R., and Marnell, L. F. 1992. Monitoring of water quality of selected lakes in Glacier National Park, Montana: Analysis of data collected, 1984–1990. Open File Report 129-92 in conformance with Cooperative Agreement CA 1268-0-9001, Work Order 6, National Park Service, Glacier National Park, West Glacier, Montana. Flathead Lake Biological Station, The University of Montana, Polson.

[GNP] Glacier National Park. 2009. Contaminants in Fish and the Human Health Perspective. National Park Service, Glacier National Park, West Glacier, Montana. Available at http://www.nature.nps.gov/air/
Studies/air_toxics/wacap/mtWorkshop/docs/Contaminants_Fish-Human_GLACguidance_062008.pdf

(pdf, 330 KB).

Hageman, K. J., Hafner, W. D., Campbell, D. H., Jaffe, D. A., Landers, D. H., Massey Simonich, S. L. 2010. Variability in Pesticide Deposition and Source Contributions to Snowpack in Western U.S. National Parks. Environmental Science and Technology 44: 4452–4458.

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

Ingersoll, G. P., Mast, M. A., Nanus, L., Handran, H. H., Manthorne, D. J., and Hultstrand, D. M. 2007. Rocky Mountain snowpack chemistry at selected sites, 2004: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2007-1045, 15 p. Available at http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2007/1045/.

Kohut, R. 2004. Assessing the Risk of Foliar Injury from Ozone on Vegetation in Parks in the Rocky Mountain Network. Available at http://www.nature.nps.gov/air/Pubs/pdf/03Risk/romnO3RiskOct04.pdf (pdf, 145 KB).

Krabbenhoft, D. P., Olson, M. L., Dewild, J. F., Clow, D. W., Striegl, R. G., Dornblaser, M. M., and VanMetre, P. 2002. Mercury loading and methylmercury production and cycling in high-altitude lakes from the western United States. Water, Air, and Soil Pollution, Focus 2: 233–249.

Landers, D. H., Simonich, S. M., Jaffe, D. A., Geiser L. H., Campbell, D. H., Schwindt, A. R., Schreck, C. B., Kent, M. L., Hafner, W. D., Taylor, H. E., Hageman, K. J., Usenko, S., Ackerman, L. K., Schrlau, J. E., Rose, N. L., Blett, T. F., and Erway, M. M. 2008. The Fate, Transport, and Ecological Impacts of Airborne Contaminants in Western National Parks (USA). EPA/600/R—07/138. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Research and Development, NHEERL, Western Ecology Division, Corvallis, Oregon. Available at http://www.nature.nps.gov/air/studies/air_toxics/WACAPreport.cfm.

Landers, D. H., Simonich, S. M., Jaffe, D. A., Geiser L. H., Campbell, D. H., Schwindt, A. R., Schreck, C. B., Kent, M. L., Hafner, W. D., Taylor, H. E., Hageman, K. J., Usenko, S., Ackerman, L. K., Schrlau, J. E., Rose, N. L., Blett, T. F., and Erway, M. M. 2010. The Western Airborne Contaminant Assessment Project (WACAP): An Interdisciplinary Evaluation of the Impacts of Airborne Contaminants in Western U.S. National Parks. Environmental Science and Technology. Vol 44: 855–859.

Mast, M. A., Foreman, W. T., and Skaates, S. V. 2006. Organochlorine compounds and current-use pesticides in snow and lake sediment in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, and Glacier National Park, Montana, 2002–03. U.S. Geological Survey, SIR 2006-5119. Reston, VA. Available at http://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2006/5119/pdf/SIR2006-5119.pdf (pdf, 4.4 MB).

Nanus, L., Williams, M. W., Campbell, D. H., Tonnessen, K. A., Blett, T., and Clow, D. W. 2009. Assessment of lake sensitivity to acidic deposition national parks of the Rocky Mountains. Ecological Applications 19(4): 961–973.

[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).

Peterson, S. A., Ralston, N. V. C., Peck, D. V., Van Sickle, J., Robertson, D. V., Spate, V. L., Morris, J. S. 2009. How might selenium moderate the toxic effects of mercury in stream fish of the western U.S.? Environ Sci Technol 43: 3919–3925.

Peterson, D. L., Sullivan, T. J., Eilers, J. M., Brace, S., Horner, D., Savig, K., and Morse, D. 1998. Assessment of air quality and air pollutant impacts in national parks of the Rocky Mountains and northern Great Plains. Report NPS/CCSOUW/NRTR—98/19. National Park Service, Air Resources Division, Denver, CO. Chapter 6: Glacier National Park. Available at http://www.nature.nps.gov/air/Pubs/pdf/
reviews/rm/RM6glac.pdf
(pdf, 1.1 MB).

Saros, J. E., Rose, K. C., Clow, D. W., Stephens, V. C., Nurse, A. B., Arnett, H. A., Stone, J. R., Williamson, C. E., Wolfe, A. P. 2010. Melting Alpine Glaciers Enrich High-Elevation Lakes with Reactive Nitrogen. Environmental Science and Technology 44(13): 4891–4896.

Saros, J. 2009. Inferring Critical Nitrogen Deposition Loads to Alpine Lakes of Western National Parks and Diatom Fossil Records. NPS Final Report. 13 pp.

Schwindt, A. R., Kent, M. L., Ackerman, L. K., Massey Simonich, S. L., Landers, D. H., Blett, T., Schreck, C. B. 2009. Reproductive Abnormalities in Trout from Western U.S. National Parks. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 138: 522–531.

Schwindt, A. R., Fournie, J. W., Landers, D. H., Schreck, C. B., Kent, M. 2008. Mercury Concentrations in Salmonids from Western U.S. National Parks and Relationships with Age and Macrophage Aggregates. Environmental Science and Technology 42(4): 1365–1370.

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: Rocky Mountain Network (ROMN). Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/ARD/NRR—2011/324. National Park Service, Denver, Colorado. Available at http://www.nature.nps.gov/air/Pubs/pdf/n-sensitivity/romn_n_sensitivity_2011-02.pdf (pdf, 11.1 MB).

Usenko, S., Massey Simonich, S. L., Hageman, K. J., Schrlau, J. E., Geiser, L., Campbell, D. H., Applyby, P. G., Landers, D. H. 2010. Sources and Deposition of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons to Western U.S. National Parks. Environmental Science and Technology 44: 4512–4518.

Watras, C. J., Morrison, K. A., Bloom, N. S. 1995. Mercury in remote Rocky Mountain Lakes of Glacier National Park, Montana, in comparison with other temperate North American regions. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 52(6): 1220–1228.


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Pollutants including mercury, nitrogen, sulfur, ozone, and fine particles affect resources such as lakes, soils, and scenic vistas. Find out how on our Glacier NP Air Pollution Impacts web page.

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Last Updated: June 14, 2011