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RTI International Awarded $2 Million Contract to Help Safeguard Air Quality in National Parks

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — The National Park Service (NPS) has awarded RTI International (RTI), a nonprofit research institute, a $2 million contract to measure air pollutants in United States national parks to help improve air visibility in support of the Interagency Monitoring of Protected Visual Environments (IMPROVE) network. The award continues a three-decade long collaboration to measure the chemical content of air pollution particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers, or PM2.5, including sulfate, nitrate, nitrite and chloride.

PM2.5 can be emitted directly by forest fires or formed from gases emitted from carbon fuel combustion sources like power plants, industries and automobiles. These particles reduce air visibility and contribute to climate change by scattering and absorbing light. Further, their presence has been linked to development of health conditions like asthma and cardiovascular disease. Some chemicals contained in PM2.5 can react with other air pollutants to form new compounds, or secondary pollutants, the environmental and health effects of which have not been studied.

“This project is in direct alignment with RTI’s mission and provides researchers at RTI with an opportunity to contribute knowledge to understanding climate change,” said Keith Levine, director of RTI’s Analytical Science Division. “We’re honored to have been selected to help the NPS continue its vital work and advance the science.”

The Interagency Monitoring of Protected Visual Environments (IMPROVE) program is a cooperative effort formed in 1985 to support the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Regional Haze Rule (RHR), which tracks decreased visibility in national parks and wildlife areas in the United States. This program is managed by a Steering Committee consisting of representatives from federal and state organizations including:

  • The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA)
  • NPS
  • The United States Forest Service (USFS)
  • The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)
  • Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
  • The National Association of Clean Air Agencies (NACAA)
  • Western States Air Resources Council (WESTAR)
  • Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM)
  • Mid Atlantic Regional Air Management Association (MARAMA)

“We’re excited to continue to support the IMPROVE network and look forward to working with the Steering Committee and university collaborators to study emerging pollutants and better understand their impacts,” said Tracy Dombek, Project Director for RTI.

The IMPROVE network has worked for more than 35 years to analyze aerosol data to address haze on the skylines of national parks and other public areas. RTI’s data from the past three decades includes thousands of aerosol samples that can help network researchers to identify trends in chemical pollutants and evaluate emerging contaminants in the environment. Previous efforts by the network have shown dramatic reductions in sulfate and organic carbon, changes that directly impact climate change. Researchers will apply these ideas to studying trends in 2020, which can provide insights into the impact that stay in place orders during COVID had on air quality and emissions.

“IMPROVE began monitoring in 1988 and is now the longest continuously operating national speciated aerosol monitoring program in the world. The IMPROVE data…have been critical in understanding the changing composition and levels of particulate matter in rural areas and the effects on climate, health, ecosystems, and visibility,” said Bret Schichtel, Research Physical Scientist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere at Colorado State University and technical expert for the IMPROVE network. “RTI has been a key player throughout most of IMPROVE’s history, and the ionic compounds measured by RTI have been crucial to the success of IMPROVE, including documenting and tracking of steep reductions in particulate sulfate in the eastern United States primarily through successful air quality regulations.”

Learn more about RTI’s support of IMPROVE

Learn more about the IMPROVE network