Nitrogen pollution changing Rocky Mountain National Park vegetation, says CU-Boulder-led study

A new study led by the University of Colorado Boulder indicates air pollution in the form of nitrogen compounds emanating from power plants, automobiles and agriculture is changing the alpine vegetation in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The emissions of nitrogen compounds to the atmosphere are being carried to remote areas of the park, altering sensitive ecosystems, said CU-Boulder Professor William Bowman, who directs CU-Boulder’s Mountain Research Station west of Boulder and who led the study. “The changes are subtle, but important,” he said. “They represent a first step in a series of changes which may be relatively irreversible.”

In other regions of the world, higher amounts of nitrogen pollutants correlate with decreased biodiversity, acidified soils and dead stream organisms like trout, said Bowman. “There is evidence that indicates once these changes occur, they can be difficult if not impossible to reverse. It is best to recognize these early stages before the more harmful later stages happen.”

The study site was an alpine meadow roughly one mile east of Chapin Pass in the Mummy Range of Rocky Mountain National Park. Bowman and his team analyzed the plant communities and soils under ambient levels of nitrogen deposition and compared them to plots with added nitrogen to simulate the increasing atmospheric nitrogen pollution expected in the coming decades. The results indicated changes in plant abundances already were occurring under ambient conditions, but to date no changes in soils were detected.

During the course of the three-year study, rising levels of nitrogen in the soils correlated with large increases in a common species of sedge shown to flourish in other nitrogen addition studies. Bowman said the team anticipates that the diversity of vascular plant species will rise with increasing nitrogen deposition, then decrease with more rare species being excluded by competition from other plant species. “While the changes are relatively modest, they portend that other more environmentally adverse impacts may be on the horizon in Colorado’s alpine areas,” said Bowman.

EurekAlert

2 responses to “Nitrogen pollution changing Rocky Mountain National Park vegetation, says CU-Boulder-led study

  1. “Bowman and his team analyzed the plant communities and soils under ambient levels of nitrogen deposition and compared them to plots with added nitrogen to simulate the increasing atmospheric nitrogen pollution expected in the coming decades.”

    So, the conclusion is based on a comparison of findings at a single actual meadow to the results of a simulation, a simulation of plots that were dosed with “expected” levels of nitrogen. Whose expectation and how was it derived? And where were the dosed plots for those 3 years, and were they otherwise subject to the same conditions as the natural meadow?

    And “relatively irreversible” – what does that mean? Is that like relatively dead?

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