The American Lung Association report card gives most East TN counties an F for ozone levels.
If you feel like you have been seeing more of the Great Smoky Mountains in recent years, a recent atmospheric study says you are correct.
A new Colorado State University study of air quality in national parks shows a major reduction in particle pollution in the air leading to and drastic increase in visibility.
The researchers simulated atmospheric conditions with photographs to demonstrate the difference between visibility levels in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2010 compared to 1990. The split-screen image of the GSMNP horizon reveals a clear change in the air.
Air pollution has plagued the Great Smoky Mountains and other national parks for several decades. While many visitors to East Tennessee may believe the iconic song lyrics "Ain't no smoggy smoke on Rocky Top" penned in 1967, the truth is the smoke most people have observed then and now in the mountains is pollution.
"I would have said that was fog, not smog," said David Link, a tourist from Kentucky at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Friday afternoon. "The sun is out and it is just absolutely glorious, clear, and the air smells spring fresh."
"In the eastern United States most of our air pollution comes from power plants and vehicle emissions. Nitrates in the air and sulfates are a lot of what we see," said Molly Schroer, GSMNP spokesperson. "It is getting better. That is the trend that we are seeing in our data as far as the air."
The study from Colorado State shows a direct correlation between the implementation of environmental regulations and the improvement in air visibility.
"There have been more controls put on power plants, emissions, and standards they have to reach," said Schroer. "On our hazy days you can go to our overlooks and see a lot farther than you used to be able to see. About 10 years ago on the hot and hazy summer days you would have visibility of about nine miles. The last couple of years we can see 25 miles on the hazy days."
"It shows our efforts are paying off for cleaner air and we're glad to see that. And I'm sure it's something the entire Valley is glad to see and is proud of as well," said TVA spokesperson Mike Bradley. "We have done a lot of investment in cleaner technologies and nuclear power to reduce emissions from fossil fuels."
The improved vista views speak volumes about air quality improvements. However, scientists remind us not to turn blind eye to pollution problems that persist in the national parks. Specifically, the invisible greenhouse gas ozone remains an ongoing problem.
The American Lung Association's most recent report card on air quality gave almost every county in East Tennessee a grade of "F" for ozone levels. Those failing grades apply to Sevier, Jefferson, Knox, Blount, and Loudon Counties. Anderson County and McMinn County received a "C" grade.
Nonetheless, the strides made to stop the smoggy smoke definitely have things looking up in terms of the views from the East Tennessee rocky tops.
"I think it helps everything. It helps the wildlife. It helps the trees and the plants and the people that are visiting," said Schroer. "We have the good visibility but we have also got a healthier environment to be in."