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Climate change will strike U.S. National Parks hardest and fastest, says study

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Temperatures in the most exposed parks could rise 16 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.

Cathedral Lake at Yosemite National Park in California. Climate change is shifting vegetation in the park to higher elevations.

Since Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, the lands protected by the National Park Service have stood as symbols of preservation and natural wonder. They are also forward indicators of the impact climate change has and will have on the United States, according to a new study by researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Madison-Wisconsin.

By 2100, temperatures in the most exposed national parks could rise as much as 16 degrees Fahrenheit (9 degrees Celsius), according to the research published today in the journal Environmental Research Letters. The authors predict this accelerated warming trend may also lead to the extinction of many small animal and plant species who live within National Parks, who would be left unable to cope with the rapid temperature shift.

“Human-caused climate change is already increasing the area burned by wildfires across the western U.S., melting glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park and shifting vegetation to higher elevations in Yosemite National Park,” said Patrick Gonzalez, associate adjunct professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley and a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, a summary of the most up-to-date scientific knowledge of climate change.

Mountain Goats and hidden lake at Glacier National Park. “At this point, it is likely that the glaciers in Glacier National park will ultimately disappear, and what is Glacier National park if it doesn’t have glaciers anymore?”

Using the climate record to predict a more extreme future

Researchers started by examining the climate record, analyzing the impact of climate change on all 417 national parks over the past century using national weather station data dating back to 1895. Gonzalez, along with Fuyao Wang, Michael Notaro, Daniel J Vimont, and John W William, found the average temperatures in national parks has increased at twice the rate as the rest of the nation, while annual rainfall had decreased more in national parks than in other parts of the country.

In effect, the distinctive nature of National Parks and their unique landscapes puts them at much greater risk, especially since many are located in deserts, high mountains or in the Arctic regions of Alaska, remote regions and fragile ecosystems set to be hardest-hit by climate change.

“National parks aren’t a random sample, they are remarkable places and many happen to be in extreme environments,” Professor Gonzalez said. “Many are in places that are inherently more exposed to human-caused climate change.”

A record of historical climate change and annual precipitation from 1895–2010 shows more extreme effects in US national park areas than the U.S. as a whole.
Patrick Gonzalez, Fuyao Wang, Michael Notaro, Daniel J Vimont, and John W William

The research team then fed these weather records into climate scenarios developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These “storylines of the future” lay out four potential scenarios, from extreme climate change to the more moderate shift that would take place if all nations met the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

The projected impacts vary significantly. According to the extreme model, average temperature at national parks would increase between 5 and 7 degrees Celsius. Sticking to the Paris Agreement would limit the damage to a 1 to 3 degrees Celsius rise.

Sustained, system-wide damage to the ecosystems of National Parks could have serious economic consequences as well. According to a National Park Service report released in May, the park system saw 331 million visitors last year, and generated $35.8 billion in economic output nationwide.

Despite the variability in outcomes, scientists believe any potential future includes rising temperatures in Alaska and its expanse of national parkland, and a decrease in rainfall in the Virgin Islands and the southwestern United States.

“Even if we really do a strong mitigation of greenhouse gases, the national park system is still expected to see a 2 degree temperature change,” said John Williams, a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “At this point, it is likely that the glaciers in Glacier National park will ultimately disappear, and what is Glacier National park if it doesn’t have glaciers anymore?”

Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. Parks in the southwest are expected to become much drier in coming decades.

How parks can plan for a warmer future

This broad-based research project is already having an impact. In addition to more system-wide predictions and modeling, scientists also prepared a number of detailed climate maps for individual parks. These “downscaled” models and maps have resolutions of 100 to 800 meters, giving park service staff the ability to plan around change and vulnerabilities and see which areas need additional measures to protect against wildfires or control invasive species.

“The park service is already integrating this climate change information into their planning and resource management,” said Fuyao Wang, a research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

While change is a given, according to Professor Gonzalez, there is still time to mitigate damage before it’s too late.

“The good news is that, if we reduce our emissions from cars, power plants, deforestation, and other human activities and meet the Paris Agreement goal, we can keep the temperature increase in national parks to one-third of what it would be without any emissions reductions,” Gonzalez said.