Study Finds 1970 Clean Air Act Responsible For Forest Revival In West Virginia

By Philip Ross on September 3, 2013 2:20 PM EDT

revival
The forest in Central Appalachian Mountains is remarkably healthier now than 40 years ago, thanks to the U.S. Clean Air Act of 1970. (Photo: Flickr/patashley)

Thanks to the U.S. Clean Air Act, forests in West Virginia are lush and thriving. Scientists studying the region's red cedar trees, whose growth was hampered during the 20th century because of pollution caused by industrialization, found that the Central Appalachian Mountains have rebounded in the decades following the law's implementation.

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Researchers from Kansas State University and West Virginia University looked at the tree rings of red cedar trees between 100 and 500 years old in the Central Appalachian Mountains, an area once choked by acid pollution from nearby coal power plants. NBC News reports that the researchers analyzed the stable carbon isotopes, which change with air quality, inside the tree rings. They compared the levels of carbon isotopes within each tree ring to the changes in atmospheric chemistry during the late-1900s.

They noticed a dramatic change in the trees' physiology and health after 1980 - just a decade after the Clean Air Act took effect. Before then, the trees' stomata - the pores that open and close to allow the flow of carbon and water into the tree - had shrunk. After the Clean Air Act, however, those pores opened up again, indicating an improvement in the trees' overall wellbeing.  

"There is a clear shift in the growth, reflecting the impact of key environmental legislation," Jesse Jesse Nippert, an associate professor of biology at Kansas State University, said in a press release. "There are two levels of significance in this research. One is in terms of how we interpret data from tree rings and how we interpret the physiology of trees. The other level of significance is that environmental legislation can have a tremendous impact on an entire ecosystem."

Researchers studying red cedar tree growth in West Virginia noted another interesting piece of the puzzle. The trees were just as healthy in the 1980s as they were in the 1930s, when the Great Depression suppressed the economy and led to a reduction in fossil fuel emissions.

The Clean Air Act, passed in various stages starting in 1963, required the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate air quality standards for six "criteria pollutants," including carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrocarbons and particulate matter.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, since 1980, U.S. carbon monoxide levels in the air have decreased by 80 percent. Ozone levels have fallen by 23 percent, and lead by a full 90 percent. That's because emissions levels for these pollutants have decreased dramatically over the past 70 years - carbon monoxide emissions alone have fallen 71 percent as of 2010.

Still, we're not out of the woods yet in terms of poor air quality yet. Emissions of air pollutants still account for a number of air quality issues in the U.S. today. From EPA:

Emissions of air pollutants continue to play an important role in a number of air quality issues. In 2010, about 90 million tons of pollution were emitted into the atmosphere in the United States. These emissions mostly contribute to the formation of ozone and particles, the deposition of acids, and visibility impairment.

Read more from iScience Times:

China Air Pollution: Thick Smog Chokes Chinese Cities, Knocks 5.5 Years Off Life Expectancy [VIDEO]

Pollution And Hurricanes: Cleaner Air Means More Extreme Weather, New Study Finds [REPORT]

Airpocolypse In China Kills 1.2 Million: Record Air Pollution Cause Beijing State of Emergency [VIDEO]

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