When water becomes dangerous: pollution in the Smokies and beyond

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“Cades Cove; Great Smoky Mountains National Park” Photo credit: Elijah C. Wyatt

During the summer, I love to visit the Smoky Mountains to enjoy the fresh mountain air and to get away from the pressures of life. However, on a recent trip, I ran into a surprising fact on a small placard: the Smokies have the highest deposits of sulfur and nitrogen of any monitored national park. Also, according to the National Park Service, 41 miles of park streams have been determined to be very acidic and all streams within the park are more acidic than they were 20 years ago.

When I first saw this on a museum placard – I was shocked! The trees were lush, the birds were singing, everything around me was an idyllic reminder of the fabled ‘simpler times’. But that placard threw me – what I was experiencing was nothing like my extreme view of pollution. In fact, when I think of pollution I envision thick, suffocating smog or water that’s undrinkable. I certainly don’t think of the Smoky Mountains!

But that’s the problem, local areas are as much at risk of pollution as national sites. We need to think of the places that we love to visit- so that when we think of pollution- we grasp the severity of potentially losing those places.

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“Chimney Tops; Great Smoky Mountains National Park” Photo credit: Kara Wyatt

Even though our national parks do not exhibit the extreme end of what we imagine when we think of pollution, there are still drastic effects of acidified and polluted water sources.

Sulfuric acid and nitric acid can be released from the atmosphere in both wet routes through acid rain or dry routes where acid is deposited onto leaves. Upon entering a water source, these acids decrease the pH of the water. Lowered pH can induce developmental and reproductive issues and disrupt nutrient uptake in mollusks, insects, and fish. This can happen anywhere that water becomes acidic, including The Great Smoky Mountains. There, the decline of the native Southern Brook Trout is in part due to increased acidity of the water. Although the National Parks work diligently to protect the environment within their jurisdiction, many of the pollutants come from outside of the park which makes management and prevention difficult.

Pollution can arise from sources that are ubiquitous across the nation. Pollution from sources that are difficult to resolve is called nonpoint source pollution and is produced from construction site runoff, fertilizer usage, land clearing and wetland drainage. Point sources are sources with obvious locations and resolutions such as overflowing storm and sanitary sewers. These often produce sources of nitrogen and sulfur that can directly flow into waters, streams, or oceans and alter ecosystems as concentrations build up over time.

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“Gatlinburg Trail; Great Smoky Mountains National Park” Photo credit: Kara Wyatt

Rising levels of inorganic chemicals, such as nitrogen, in the water can not only alter the survival, development, and reproduction of aquatic animals but also their ability to overcome bacterial and parasitic diseases. The dangers of disease are not limited to aquatic animals either! High levels of nitrates in water sources have been correlated with increased mosquito larva of species that are known carriers of West Nile Virus, Zika virus, and Chikungunya virus.

Thankfully, due to the Clean Air Act (1970), Clean Water Action Plan (1998) and Clean Water Act (1972), there are many initiatives to curb the emission of these potentially dangerous chemicals. These plans have encouraged involvement from the community to improve and protect water sources. Historically, proposals to improve air and water quality, and reduce emissions have reclaimed the beauty in our natural forests – however, recent legislation to repeal the Clean Power Plan may be detrimental.

However, that can’t be a deterrent to doing what’s best for our forests, oceans, or any of the beautiful places on the Earth that we love. Although it may seem small, simple changes like not littering and properly disposing of chemicals at hazardous waste sites can add up over time. Additionally, Athens-Clarke County and UGA have many outreach and volunteer opportunities to help our own water initiatives.

So wherever you visit this summer to find your peace and quiet, this is a gentle reminder that pollution is a problem everywhere. The beauty of the natural environment we love needs to be protected and cared for so that it can continue to be shared with generations to come.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKara Wyatt is a PhD student in the Department of Infectious Diseases at the University of Georgia currently studying the immune response to influenza within the lung epithelium. In her spare time she enjoys playing video games, hiking with her husband, or watching Kind of the Hill on repeat. You can connect with Kara by email at kara.wyatt@uga.edu. More from Kara Wyatt.