Think you can escape pollution by going to a national park? Think again

LOS ANGELES – Mountains. Forests. Starry nights. Smog? Sadly, yes: The air in two popular national parks in California is as dirty as it is in Los Angeles — the smoggiest city in the country.

“When you think of national parks, you think of these as being really pristine areas, almost areas you want to go to get out of cities,” said David Keiser, an economist at Iowa State University, who co-authored new research, published Wednesday in Science Advances

“But in many ways, the airquality conditions are just the same there as they are in cities today.”

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The dirt on dirty air

From 1993 to 2014, Los Angeles racked up 2,443 days in which air quality was so bad it violated federal safety standards for smog, also called ground-level ozone.

But Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks – a wonderland of rocky cliffs, icy mountain lakes and gigantic trees just east of Fresno – had even more smoggy days: 2,739.

Joshua Tree National Park was almost as bad, with 2,301 days.

“It’s a common misperception that because a place is labeled as a national park, there’s boundaries erected around it that prevent air pollution,” said Stephanie Kodish, head of the clean-air and climate program at the National Parks Conservation Association. There aren’t.

Where the pollution comes from

Both parks are downwind of the most air-polluted area in the country:

In Joshua Tree, the pollution blows in all the way from the Los Angeles Basin.

In Sequoia and Kings Canyon, it comes from big farms in the Central Valley and cities like Bakersfield, Fresno and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Smog – ground-level ozone and airborne particulates – forms when sunlight reacts with a volatile organic compound and nitrogen oxide from vehicle exhaust, power plants and factories. Volatile organic compounds are common in household products and fuels.

But in cities, air quality improves overnight. It doesn’t as much in nature, according to Annie Esperanza, the air-resources specialist for Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

In urban areas during the day, nitrogen-oxide emissions contribute to smog. But at night, with the absence of sunlight, nitrogen oxide switches sides to help break down ozone, so that by morning, the air is cleaner.

But in national parks and other less-populated areas, there aren’t as many sources of nitrogen oxide around at night to break down the ozone. That’s because there are fewer people driving, so smog lingers day and night.

For healthy adults, high levels of ozone can make it hard to breathe, cause wheezing or respiratory infections.

One study found that breathing smoggy air for a day or two increased the risk of heart attacks for middle-aged adults without heart disease. And many studies have found hospital visits for heart and lung problems go up on days when air pollution is bad.

It’s even worse for kids and the elderly.

Fading from view

Beyond the health effects, smoggy days in national parks are just a bummer because they make it harder to see the epic vistas visitors came for.

Esperanza says on a clear day, you should be able to see more than 100 miles from an overlook on Sequoia and Kings Canyon’s steep, winding entrance road.

“When visibility is obscured, you can maybe see 25 to 30 miles,” she said.

Know before you go

The parks with the worst air quality try to warn visitors about air quality through Twitter handles, such as @SequoiaKingsAir.

You can also check air quality here. Just enter the name of the park you want to to visit, or click on it on the map, and real-time air-quality data will pop up.

These warnings may be working, because the researchers found that fewer people visit parks on smoggy days.

“It turns out a 1 percent increase in ozone levels results in a 1 percent decrease in visitation,” Keiser said.

Is the air quality improving in national parks?

Yes, but not as quickly as in other places.

Since the early 1990s, LA and other cities have made huge gains in cleaning up the air. But air pollution in national parks remains stubbornly bad.

Keiser, the Iowa State researcher, and his co-authors found that between 1993 and 2014, the average number of bad air days in U.S. cities fell from 53 to 18 days a year. Meanwhile, the number of smoggy days in national parks didn’t fall as much: from 27 in 1993 to 16 in 2014.

That means, as of 2014, national parks were nearly as smoggy as U.S. cities.

Part of the reason for the slower progress in national parks is that, for a long time, regulatory agencies weren’t focused on parks. A 1999 EPA regulation called the Regional Haze Program requires states to clean up the air in national parks, but it didn’t take effect until 2007, so there just hasn’t been as much time for things to improve.

“You have a longer history of targeting sources of pollution that have an effect on public health,” Kodish said. “It’s more recent that there have been targeted efforts to clean up pollution that’s harming parks.”

In other words, things that improve air quality for people living in cities – like forcing big emitters such as refineries to install modern pollution controls – may not work for the rural places where smog gets carried.

California slashes carbon emissions below 1990 levels, but hardest work lies ahead

Here’s some good news about climate change, for a change: The California Air Resources Board says carbon emissions have fallen by 12 million metric tons. That means California as a state has met its goal for cutting emissions four years early.

People were pretty excited:

California’s carbon-dioxide emissions fell to 429 million metric tons in 2016. There’s a two-year lag in data reporting, which is why it’s just coming out now. That means Californians are emitting less than the state did in 1990.

And that matters, because 1990 was the target goal to hit by 2020.

And how did the state pull this off?

Mostly by using cleaner electricity. Switching away from fossil fuels, which emit a lot of carbon dioxide, to wind, hydro and solar, which don’t emit any.

This was easier because in 2016, California had a lot of hydro power. Remember that was the winter with the record-breaking rainfall and huge snowpack in the Sierra Nevada. All that hydropower meant the state didn’t have to run natural-gas fired power plants as much.

Why is it important that emissions fell so much?

It shows that California’s climate policies are working and not destroying the economy.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – who signed California’s first-ever climate bill in 2006 – tweeted that California’s economy is growing, unemployment is very low and that “should send a message to politicians all over the country: You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, just copy us.”

It’s also a sign that the state’s cap-and-trade program is working well to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The program forced big polluters, such as power plants and refineries, to buy permits to offset their carbon emissions. Before, polluters could pollute without penalty.

What’s the downside?

The downside is that emissions from cars and trucks are increasing; they’re up 2 percent over the past year. Part of that is that we’re driving more miles and driving bigger vehicles, particularly SUVs and pickups.

California’s carbon-dioxide emissions in 2016. (Graphic: California Air Resources Board (CARB) .

So today, a much larger percentage of total carbon emissions are from cars — 41 percent — than from electricity, which is 16 percent.

Why is that a problem?

That’s a problem because it’s way, way harder to clean up cars and trucks than it is to clean up power plants.

Think about it: You can generate electricity in a lot of different ways, including solar, wind, natural gas and coal. So cleaning up electricity is just a matter of switching fuels.

But with cars and trucks, gasoline remains the dominant fuel by far. Of the 35 million cars in California, only 180,000 are electric. That number is growing, but electric cars still aren’t as practical or as affordable for most people as a gas-powered car.

Also just practically speaking: It’s a lot harder to change the behavior of 35 million car-owners than the operators of the 1,000 or so power plants in California.

What can be done about emissions from transportation?

Gov. Jerry Brown wants to get 5 million electric cars on the road by 2030.

There are already things in place to help make the cars cheaper, such as tax credits and rebates. So now the push is going to be toward building more places for people to charge them.

There are 14,000 public chargers in California, a number Brown wants to increase to 250,000. He thinks that’ll also help make electric cars more visible so people see them around and think, “Hey, look at that electric car! Maybe I’ll buy one.”

The 2020 goals have been met – what’s next?

It only gets harder from here. The new goal, set in September 2016, is to slash our carbon-dioxide emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, which is way more ambitious than the target that was just met.

The new goal means Californians are going to have to get serious about cutting emissions from transportation and other areas that haven’t made much progress yet and/or are more politically difficult. A big test will be agriculture — cow burps, flatulence and manure greatly contribute to climate change.

Then there’s phasing out natural gas use for heating and cooking. And making houses way more energy efficient. And on and on.

In a recent tweet, Colin Murphy, the transportation policy manager at NextGen Policy Center, said the air-resources board’s July 12 announcement “is legitimately cause for (brief) celebration.”

“I’ll pause a moment to let you bask in the warm glow. O.k. that’s enough of that. Hope you enjoyed the basking, we’ve got work to do.”

Climate change brings hotter, drier winds – ramping up intensity of wildfires in the West

LOS ANGELES – It seemed as if Southern California was ablaze in December 2017. Four big wildfires were chewing through wildlands from southern San Diego County to Santa Barbara, scorching hundreds of square miles and destroying or damaging thousands of homes.

It could be a sign of things to come. Many scientists think climate change is a major contributor of wildfires in California and across the nation, particularly in western states like Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and Utah.

“Wildfire is a really interesting sustainability issue,” said Alex Hall, a climate scientist with the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA. he also directs the Center for Climate Science and is with the university’s atmospheric and oceanic sciences department.

“For the past 200 years or so, we’ve been burning fossil fuels that has led to an increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” Hall said. “Greenhouse gases trap heat, and that has led to a steady warming of the planet that has been accelerating in recent decades. Fires are driven by dry and hot winds, and when winds become hotter and drier, that leads to greater fire risk.

“Climate change also … tends to dry out vegetation during our hot summers and it dries it out more as the climate warms more, and so that can create a greater risk for fire as well.”

Hall says it is a challenge trying to fight blazes where hillside wildlands and urban sprawl intersect. These are typically places in and around areas like Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix and Salt Lake City. LA is the worst of these cities, he says.

“What happened with the fires last season was a great example of what’s to come with fire,” Hall said. “We had a really, really big wet season in 2016-2017, and that led to a buildup of vegetation. That vegetation dried out over the course of a very hot summer in 2017, and then the rainy season did not arrive as it should have, and so by the time we got to December, we had these very hot and dry Santa Ana events that occurred, and that was the perfect condition for a very large fire.

“And climate change will increase the frequency of those types of events. Climate change increases the dryness of the winds when they occur. It increases the temperature of the winds when they occur, and it also increases the swings between very wet and dry years. We’re beginning to see the climate-change signal emerge, certainly in the climate record and then at the same time the fires are also becoming unprecedented. We’re seeing fires that are setting records in terms of their size and their intensity, and our ability to manage them is becoming less and less.”

To really get an idea of what Hall is talking about, consider the Thomas Fire in northern Ventura County, the worst California wildfire in state history. It began Dec. 4, claimed two lives, destroyed 1,000 structures and was not fully contained until Jan. 12. Nearly 282,000 acres were charred.

During December, Southern California experienced Santa Ana winds near 70 mph – something not seen in decades. What started the Thomas Fire isn’t known, but it raced through the region at a frenzy. Winds carried dense plumes of gray smoke miles from where the fire was burning. More than 500 engines from all over California were stationed at the Ventura County Fairgrounds along with more than 2,500 firefighters.

Chris Harvey of the Sacramento Fire Department was part of that team.

“We’re talking about a fire that’s over the size of the city of Detroit at this point. It’s likely to be much larger than that,” Harvey said.

Weeks later, the Thomas Fire had engulfed an area larger than New York City.

The December 2017 Thomas Fire burns in the hills above Los Padres National Forest. (Photo: Stuart Palley for the U.S. Forest Service)

“It is like a war zone,” said Gretel Compton of Ventura County, whose home was partly destroyed. “You’re driving through areas where they’re completely burnt out and black. It looks like a bomb went off.

“I want to go home. I want to see what the damage is. We have lost part of our house. I’m just so up in the air. I don’t know what to do. Where do you start? I have no water. I have no power. I’m on a well. All of that stuff is burnt. Other friends and neighbors have lost everything, everything, everything, and now they have to start from scratch and it’s just so heart-wrenching.”

Wildfires can have devastating consequences, including loss of life, destroyed homes, financial losses and air quality damaged by tons of carbon dioxide.

But wildfires also can benefit the environment, climate scientists say.

They can rid forested areas of dead and decaying matter that provide fuel during dry periods. Fires can help balance the ecosystem by destroying diseased vegetation and dangerous insects, like the bark beetle, which has decimated millions of acres of California forest over the past decade. Fires even regenerate seeds for trees that require intense heat every few years to sprout.

“Wildfire is a natural part of our landscapes,” Hall said, “and our natural landscapes actually need wildfire to regenerate, and we have to learn how to coexist sustainably with wildfire going forward – and that’s something we haven’t done a great job with in California.”

Harvey, the Sacramento firefighter, noted Southern California’s “long history of destructive and catastrophic wildfires.”

“We do take a very personal feeling to what’s going on here,” he said. “So I hate to say this, but this could continue to be a very explosive and expansive event.”

Hall said he was “concerned about our sustainability relationship with fire.”

“The most important thing that we can do to combat climate change is to stop burning fossil fuels,” he said. “We need to replace those energy sources with renewable energy sources, and examples of those are solar power, wind power, hydro power. Those are the things we need to rely on in the future. We will see less warming in California and that will lead to less of an impact on fire. That will lead to less of an increase in fire risk, and that will help us manage this increasingly difficult situation that we have with wildfire.”