Landscape image of boulder flatirons and a lush field

File photo. Mountains in Boulder County. Photo Credit: beklaus (iStock).

Research led by the University of Colorado Boulder found evidence of long-term ecological improvement in areas of the Rocky Mountains suffering from increased acidity.

The findings, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, suggest that Colorado’s mountains may be slowly recovering from the damage caused by vehicle emissions in Colorado’s Front Range.

“It looks like we're doing the right thing,” said co-author Jason Neff. “By controlling vehicle emissions, some of these really special places that make Colorado unique are going back to what they used to be.”

Over the last 200 years, rain and snow have contained increased acidic nutrients like nitrogen produced by vehicles and energy production. During the summer, warmer air rises, bringing nitrogen with it, which falls as acid rain and snow.

The overabundance of nitrogen causes changes soil and water chemistry which can be disastrous for native plants and animals. In the 1970s, acid rain wiped out large amounts of fish populations and trees in the east coast.

CU’s research discovered a decrease in nitric and sulfuric acid levels in the Green Lakes Valley region of Niwot Ridge over the past 30 years.

This is good news for local wildlife, plants and residents who all depend on the water and soil in the Front Range and Mountain West. In fact, 40% of Boulder's water is sourced from the Green Lakes Valley.

However, the research did not yield only good news. The research also found that levels of ammonium from fertilizer have more than doubled in the area’s rainfall from 1984 to 2017.

“We still have air quality issues in the Front Range,” Neff said. “But even with those air quality issues, this research shows that regulating vehicle and power plant emissions is having a big impact.”

The complete findings are available online at

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