The number one reason for visiting Death Valley National Park is sightseeing. Since most of the land is treeless and since it encompasses a great range of elevations, the park has an abundance of striking and easily accessible views. Dante's View, Aguereberry Point, and Father Crowley Point are popular viewpoints. From Dante's View one can observe Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet and Badwater at -282 feet, as well as Mount Whitney and Mount Charleston, which are 87 miles and 56 miles away, respectively.
Unfortunately, the view across the valley is often hazy, especially in the late spring and summer. On bad days, Telescope Peak is not visible from the visitor's center, even though it is only 23 miles away. Winds from the south bring in pollutants from metropolitan and industrial areas, and high temperatures accelerate the conversion of these pollutants into visibility-reducing particles. These pollutants come from cars, power plants, and industrial processes. Nature also contributes to the haziness by blowing dust into the air. But humans increase the amount of dust available to be blown by the wind when they drive on unpaved roads or break up the salt crust by walking on it.
Death Valley National Park is an excellent place for stargazing, the darkest out of all National Parks. Low light pollution levels and frequently cloudless skies allow professionals and amateurs to see many heavenly bodies after dark. Although the skies are fairly dark compared to skies in more populated areas of the United States, they are affected by a noticeable glows from Las Vegas and the central valley.
Although the National Park Service has limited influence over the neon glows of Las Vegas, it is trying to reduce the amount of local light pollution. National Parks can do this by using outdoor light fixtures that direct light to the ground rather than sideways or upwards, and by eliminating outdoor lighting where it is unnecessary. A plan for doing so is currently being developed at Death Valley National Park. Collecting data on the current state and general trends of nighttime visibility is also important to solving the problem of light pollution. To this end, night sky conditions are monitored at the park annually by a traveling team of scientists.
One might think that the air would be pristine at Death Valley National Park due to its remote location. However, pollutants can be carried great distances on the wind. The general trend in upper air movement brings pollutants from metropolitan areas, industrial areas, and transportation corridors from the west. In summer, surface winds come from the southwest, where major population centers, industrial areas, and a dry lakebed are located. In winter, surface winds come from the northeast. Since these winds bring an air mass that originates in less developed areas, our air quality is better in the winter.
Pollutants carried in from other areas usually change form by the time they reach Death Valley. For example, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emitted by power plants and cars react with other molecules to form sulfates and nitrates, which interfere with visibility and contribute to acid rain. Similarly, ozone is formed by nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic carbons. Pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide that are directly emitted into the air are called primary pollutants, whereas the pollutants these are converted into are called secondary pollutants. During the summer months, more sunlight and higher temperatures speed up these conversion reactions.
The park has an air quality monitoring station near Furnace Creek that measures ozone, wet and dry acid deposition, visibility-reducing particles, and meteorological data. The monitoring station is part of a nationwide network. Collecting long-term data on air pollutants allows the National Park Service to take action if they exceed certain standards. Also, this information allows us to predict bad air pollution days and inform visitors about how to reduce negative health effects on these days. Death Valley National Park currently measures ozone levels that are unhealthy for sensitive groups a few times a year. A system for forecasting high ozone days is in the works.