Despite bad air days, forests persevere

Whiteface Mountain tells a story of haze, pollution, acid rain

September 08, 2002|By Dina Cappiello | Dina Cappiello,ALBANY TIMES UNION

WILMINGTON, N.Y. - Whiteface Mountain is a tourist trap in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks.

It is the only mountaintop that can be reached by car. In the winter, it is a ski resort; in the summer, it is a mountain bike center.

As such, Whiteface is the only peak of the 46 highest Adirondack Mountains not designated as pristine wilderness.

But the threats facing Whiteface (elevation 4,670 feet) confront many of the more strictly protected peaks of the Adirondack Park, and some are coming from afar.

Living laboratory

For nearly 40 years, researchers have used Whiteface as the peaks' living laboratory.

On its slopes, scientists have cataloged widespread tree death from acid rain, and more recently, high levels of smog and other air pollution.

And here, on many days, mountaintop visitors paying $8 a car to reach the summit have a view obscured by a haze that some scientists say has worsened in recent years and poses the newest pollution threat to the High Peaks' forests.

On Whiteface, at one of the few mountaintop monitoring sites in the country, scientists have found some of the most concentrated air pollution in the state, along with some of its gravest effects.

"The High Peaks make a good canary in a coal mine," said Kathleen Fallon Lambert, executive director of the Hubbard Brook Research Station at the University of New Hampshire. "They tend to be more sensitive. They tend to receive a lot of cloud water and fog."

So far, researchers atop Whiteface Mountain have found that cuts in air pollution required by the federal government a decade ago have helped the forests on the fragile mountaintops to heal. But most say more has to be done to preserve the forests well into the future.

"Unless we remove pollution from cloud water, eventually we could have a repeat," said Chris Eagar, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Durham, N.H., who edited the book Ecology and Decline of Red Spruce.

"But the trees won't die in our lifetime," he added.

Dedication to science

The monitoring station at the summit of Whiteface Mountain showcases the lengths some will go for science.

In summer, researchers climbing to reach their instruments risk being struck by lightning. In winter, they travel up the mountain in two-person sleds, dig through feet of snow and chip away icicles to get to their monitors.

The components of acid rain can be measured only at lodge level - a base about 1,990 feet up the mountainside. At the 4,670-foot summit station, rain can be horizontal.

"You have to be here to see what you're sampling against," said Doug Wolfe, operations manager for the State University of New York at Albany's Atmospheric Sciences Research Center station atop Whiteface. "The conditions are entirely different from what happens below."

At the lodge level, in a small clearing in the woods, sits a collection of trailers. Each one has a tower jutting into the sky and emits a dull hum from incessant air conditioning. Some are only big enough for a single scientist, monitoring equipment and a computer.

But they are capable of measuring pollution in the air every tenth of a second and sensitive enough to register a spike when a single car drives up the mountain.

Ken Demerjian, director of the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center, operates Whiteface with less than $300,000 in federal grants each year. The money pays for the equipment and subsidizes about 40 scientists who use Whiteface to study everything from air pollution to how clouds form.

Demerjian makes the 2 1/2 -hour drive to Whiteface at least once a week in a silver-gray sedan with Massachusetts vanity plates that read CLNAIR.

He has studied the chemistry of what's in air for so long that on any given day, as he leaves Interstate 87 to get to Whiteface, he can look at the hazy film that seems stuck on the mountains and break it down to its components.

Even his eyes look celestial - a brown pupil encircled by a thin blue ring.

Regional pollution

"There's no major local pollution. It's all regional," he said on a recent trip. "A pollution episode is usually 2 to 3 days old."

The High Peaks' pollution problems start in the Ohio Valley, with its many coal-fired power plants, and are amplified by the city traffic of Toronto and Buffalo.

Wind catches what is emitted from the smokestacks and tailpipes and blows it east, carrying it toward the High Peaks at up to 50 mph. Once over the mountains it stops, hemmed in by high pressure.

As more pollution rolls in, concentrations of the gases that generate acid rain, ground-level ozone and small particles build over New York's tallest peaks, creating what Demerjian calls a "pond of pollution."

The bulk of it arrives at night, hours after factory shifts end and rush hours subside. That's when monitors on the summit record the highest levels of air pollution.

The plume then attacks the high-elevation forests of the Adirondack High Peaks from all sides.

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