Air quality on the Colorado Plateau is worsening, National Park Service research has shown.
The Park Service hopes to get more detailed information for Northwest Colorado next month, when it installs a gaseous ozone monitor at Dinosaur National Monument.
The Park Service doesn't have air-quality measurements for the monument; limited funding has prohibited the agency from conducting such research.
But research from other parks in Colorado, including Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde and the Great Sand Dunes, enables scientists to make some intelligent guesses about what's happening in Dinosaur, said Mark Scruggs, assistant division chief with the Park Service's air research program.
"We seem to see a worsening trend in ozone and an increase in depositions of nitrogen," Scruggs said. "It's been a mystery to us. We're not sure where it's coming from."
Nitrogen deposits act like a fertilizer in the environment, Scruggs said. The deposits can cause changes in ecosystems. Nitrogen can over-fertilize the environment, causing some plants not to grow.
"Terrestrial and aquatic systems can have substantial changes," said John Reber, a physical scientist with the Park Service Intermountain Regional Office.
The failure of algae to grow is often an early indicator of shifts in an ecosystem, Reber said.
It will be several years before Dinosaur National Monument has collected enough information to draw any conclusions about air pollution, said Wayne Prokopetz, chief of research and resource management at the monument.
Monument staff doesn't know what sources are contributing to a decline in air quality.
During summer, smoke from forest fires accumulates in the area. Industrial facilities, including power plants, cement plants and smelters, as well as agriculture and vehicle traffic, also contribute to air problems.
The Park Service has the technology to trace particulate matter back to its source. But the research won't start until well into next year, and most of it will be focused on the Front Range and Northeast Colorado, Scruggs said. The monitor at Dinosaur will be one of the few monitors west of the Front Range.
The national nonprofit organi-zation Environmental Defense sued the EPA to force the agency to develop standards to improve air quality at national parks. New court-ordered regulations are due by June 15.
The regulations should improve air quality at all parks, including remote monuments such as Dinosaur, Environmental Defense attorney Vicki Patton said.