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Air Pollution Impacts

Point Reyes National Seashore

Natural and scenic resources in Point Reyes National Seashore (NS) are susceptible to the harmful effects of air pollution. Nitrogen, ozone, mercury, and fine particles impact natural resources such as surface waters and vegetation, and scenic resources such as visibility. Click on the tabs below to learn more about air pollutants and their impacts on natural and scenic resources at Point Reyes NS.

  • Visibility
  • Nitrogen & Sulfur
  • Ozone
  • Toxics & Mercury

Many visitors come to Point Reyes NS to enjoy views of this narrow, steep-ridged peninsula, “a portion of the diminishing seashore of the U.S. that remains undeveloped.” While natural fog forms over the ocean, blanketing the seashore and obscuring spectacular vistas, occasionally the vistas are obscured by human-caused haze from the San Francisco Bay Area. Many of the same pollutants that ultimately fall out as nitrogen and sulfur deposition contribute to this haze and visibility impairment. Organic compounds, soot, and dust reduce visibility as well.

Visibility effects at Point Reyes NS include:

  • Reduced visibility on some days due to human-caused haze and fine particles of air pollution;
  • Reduction of the average natural visual range from about 80 miles (without the effects of pollution) to about 40 miles because of pollution at the park;
  • Reduction of the visual range from about 50 miles to below 20 miles on high pollution days.

(Source: IMPROVE 2010)

Images of good and poor visibility at Point Reyes National Seashore, California
Air pollutants can affect visibility at Point Reyes NS, California
(clear to hazy from left to right)

Explore scenic vistas through a live webcam at Point Reyes National Seashore!

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Image of a coastal sage scrub community at Point Reyes NS in California.
While nitrogen deposition at Point Reyes NS, California, is relatively low, even slight loading to the ecosystem can promote the growth of exotic, invasive grasses in coastal sage scrub communities, such as above.

Nitrogen and sulfur compounds deposited from air pollution can harm surface waters, soils, and vegetation. The arid and semi-arid ecosystems in Point Reyes NS are particularly vulnerable to changes caused by nitrogen deposition. Although atmospheric nitrogen inputs are relatively low in the area, nitrogen loading can disrupt soil nutrient cycling and alter plant communities (Sullivan et al. 2001 [pdf, 6.3 KB]). In other areas of California, nitrogen deposition appears to play an important role in the ongoing replacement of native plant species with exotic, invasive annuals in coastal sage scrub communities (Fenn et al. 2003). Native plants that have evolved under nitrogen-poor conditions are replaced by invasive species that are able to take advantage of increased nitrogen levels.


Photo of a healthy Artemisia douglasiana (Douglas' sagewort), an ozone-sensitive plant species at Point Reyes NS, California.
Artemisia douglasiana (Douglas’ sagewort), an ozone-sensitive plant species at Point Reyes NS, California.

Naturally-occurring ozone in the upper atmosphere absorbs the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays and helps to protect all life on earth. However, in the lower atmosphere, ozone is an air pollutant, forming when nitrogen oxides from vehicles, power plants, and other sources combine with volatile organic compounds from gasoline, solvents, and vegetation in the presence of sunlight. In addition to causing respiratory problems in people, ozone can injure plants. Ozone enters leaves through pores (stomata), where it can kill plant tissues, causing visible injury, or reduce photosynthesis, growth, and reproduction.

Ozone concentrations and seasonal exposures are generally low at Point Reyes NS and unlikely to cause plant injury or reduced growth (Sullivan et al. 2001 [pdf, 6.3 KB]). However, several park species, including Artemisia douglasiana (Douglas’ sagewort) and Sambucus mexicana (blue elderberry), are known to be sensitive to ozone.

Search the list of ozone-sensitive plant species (pdf, 184 KB) found at each national park.


Photo of a lichen at Point Reyes NS in California
Pollutants absorbed by lichens at Point Reyes NS in California can indicate
air quality.

Toxic air pollutants include pesticides, industrial by-products, heavy metals like mercury, and flame retardants for fabrics. Lichens, a group of non-vascular plants that accumulate such contaminants and are sensitive to airborne pollutants, can be used as indicators of urban pollution and point-source emissions like power plants.

Elevated mercury concentrations have been found in lichens from the seashore at high elevation sites that intercept fog. Additionally, concentrations of arsenic and lead decrease with distance from south to north at the seashore, suggesting these two elements originate in the fine particulate haze that enters the park from San Francisco Bay Area (Bennett and Benson 2005).

Once such toxic contaminants enter the food chain, effects in wildlife and humans can include reproductive problems, impaired growth and development, behavioral abnormalities, reduced immune response, chronic illness, cancer, and death.


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Studies and Monitoring icon

Studies and monitoring help the NPS understand the environmental impacts of air pollution. Access air quality data and see what is happening with Studies and Monitoring at Point Reyes NS.

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Last Updated: December 30, 2016