Initial results from experiments conducted in the Santa Monica Mountains indicate that high levels of nitrogen may adversely impact native plants and, by extension, increase the risk of wildfire, federal officials said last week.
“No one will be surprised to learn that our data shows increased air pollution on the eastern end of the mountains, closer to Los Angeles,” said Dr. Irina Irvine, restoration ecologist for Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. “What’s more intriguing about this study is learning how high nitrogen levels affect native vegetation and what that might mean for fire risk in such a fire-prone region.”
The preliminary results are from the first year of a three-year study undertaken by Irvine, UC Riverside’s Dr. Edith B. Allen and the U.S. Forest Service’s Dr. Andrzej Bytnerowicz and Dr. Mark Fenn.
Researchers measured atmospheric nitrogen deposit levels at 10 sites throughout the Santa Monica Mountains and found significantly higher pollution levels in the eastern end. At the two sites with the best air quality, they added various levels of nitrogen into experimental plots of coastal sage scrub to simulate pollution levels found throughout the mountains.
Higher levels of nitrogen led to a decline in native shrub seedlings and an increase in nonnative grasses. Other studies in Australia and California have demonstrated a link between nonnative grasses, also known as “flashy fuels,” and larger and more frequent wildfires, the researchers said.
Funded by the National Park Service’s Air Resources Division, the $100,000 study will help scientists better determine the “critical load” when vegetation shifts, causing alterations to the structure and functionality of ecosystems. Coastal sage scrub once covered much of coastal California and is now an endangered habitat type, primarily due to development.
Generally attributed to vehicle emissions in the Santa Monica Mountains, nitrogen deposition is the air pollution from industry, agriculture and transportation that settles out of the atmosphere and onto the earth’s surface.
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is the largest urban national park in the country, encompassing more than 150,000 acres of mountains and coastline in Ventura and Los Angeles counties. It comprises a seamless network of local, state and federal parks interwoven with private lands and communities. As one of only five Mediterranean ecosystems in the world, the area preserves the rich biological diversity of more than 450 animal species and 26 distinct plant communities, federal officials said.
For more information about the study, visit www.nps.gov/samo.
This story originally appeared in the Santa Monica Daily Press.