Basic Information about Visibility
How far can you see?
Every year there are over 280 million visitors to our nation's most treasured parks and wilderness areas. Unfortunately, many visitors aren't able to see the spectacular vistas they expect. During much of the year a veil of white or brown haze hangs in the air blurring the view. Most of this haze is not natural. It is air pollution, carried by the wind often many hundreds of miles from where it originated.
In our nation's scenic areas, the visual range has been substantially reduced by air pollution. In eastern parks, average visual range has decreased from 90 miles to 15-25 miles. In the West, visual range has decreased from 140 miles to 35-90 miles.
What is haze?
Haze is caused when sunlight encounters tiny pollution particles in the air. Some light is absorbed by particles. Other light is scattered away before it reaches an observer. More pollutants mean more absorption and scattering of light, which reduce the clarity and color of what we see. Some types of particles such as sulfates, scatter more light, particularly during humid conditions.
Where does haze-forming pollution come from?
Air pollutants come from a variety of natural and manmade sources. Natural sources can include windblown dust, and soot from wildfires. Manmade sources can include motor vehicles, electric utility and industrial fuel burning, and manufacturing operations. Particulate matter pollution is the major cause of reduced visibility (haze) in parts of the United States, including many of our national parks. Find out more about particulate pollution.
Some haze-causing particles are directly emitted to the air. Others are formed when gases emitted to the air form particles as they are carried many miles from the source of the pollutants.
What else can these pollutants do to you and the environment?
Some of the pollutants which form haze have also been linked to serious health problems and environmental damage. Exposure to very small particles in the air have been linked with increased respiratory illness, decreased lung function, and even premature death. In addition, particles such as nitrates and sulfates contribute to acid rain formation which makes lakes, rivers, and streams unsuitable for many fish, and erodes buildings, historical monuments, and paint on cars.
How can I learn more about visibility?
- How Air Pollution Affects the View - EPA brochure describing the health and environmental effects of haze.
- Introduction to Visibility - Report by William Malm, National Park Service and Colorodo State Institute for Research on the Atmosphere