An awesome view: Feds discuss climate change, progress on reducing haze

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, left, and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, speak during a news conference on climate change and haze at the Hawksbill Mountain summit in Shenandoah National Park in October. Rich Cooley/Daily

ROBERTSON – U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy hiked to the top of the highest peak in Shenandoah National Park on Thursday. As they looked down on blankets of pure white clouds hovering over the valley from the summit of Hawksbill Mountain, they spoke about regional haze and climate change.

“If you haven’t been to a national park in the past 20 years, boy are you going to see things you never saw before,” McCarthy told members of the media and park and federal staff members who followed them on foot a mile up the mountain to take in the view from 4,058 feet in the air.

“And part of that is because of the work we’ve been doing to reduce air pollutants that limit visibility and take away some of these vista opportunities.”

Regional haze – the result of sunlight hitting tiny particles of air pollutant such as sulfur – is a view spoiler, but it has other effects that are detrimental to humans, animals and plants.

“You’re talking about opportunities for premature deaths. When it gets extreme, you’re talking about kids with asthma triggers,” she said. “There’s lots of concerns we have with pollution in general and there’s all kinds of programs we have to deal with it, but in some it’s made a tremendous difference in terms of how we experience the world and our ability to stay healthy in the world.”

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, left, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, center, and Shenandoah National Park Superintendent Jim Northrup, right, lead a delegation of park service personnel and reporters on Upper Hawksbill Trail Thursday morning in Shenandoah National Park. Rich Cooley/Daily

Haze originates mostly from manmade sources, she said, and it travels pretty far.  “It actually impacts visibility in a big way at national parks like this,” she said. But the U.S. has made “tremendous progress” over the past 17 years.  “We’re talking about extending your ability to see, your visibility at these beautiful places by up to 20 miles or more. Here it’s been 25 miles. That makes a big difference in how people see the world.”

Jewell spoke about climate change’s effect on the ecology in Shenandoah National Park and the very real problems it poses.

“Looking back over the past hundred years, 95 percent of the time our springs have been earlier,” she said.

“It’s very dramatic here in Shenandoah. It’s not just trying to adjust to, for Jim (Northup, superintendent of Shenandoah National Park) and his team here, getting park staff here earlier because people are coming here earlier because it’s warmer. It’s also dealing with invasive species that adapt very quickly to a changing climate where the native species don’t.

“It is dealing with a very real mismatch between pollinators and when the plants need to be pollinated. So, they’re budding out earlier, before the birds have migrated here or before insects have hatched, and that’s got a profound impact.”

Jewell said that while the EPA’s work has reduced the acidity of precipitation, species face different challenges as well.

“For aquatic species that are benefitting from the reduction in acid rain and all of those changes that the EPA helped to facilitate, are now struggling with warming water. Warming water is a huge problem for species like the brook trout that need cold water to be able to reproduce. … For us, it’s very real in terms of the impacts on the park, the impacts on people, the resources we have to put into play to try to maintain a lot of the reasons why Shenandoah National Park and places like it are special.”

Contact staff writer Nathan Budryk at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or