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Climate Change Threatens U.S. National Parks

A large percentage of the country's national parks have recently experienced extreme heat, precipitation or drought, which could hurt plant and animal species
climate change at national parks


Wildfire near Yosemite National Park.
Credit: California National Guard via Flickr

Climate change has arrived in America's national parks, threatening natural and historical resources with climbing temperatures and changing precipitation patterns, according to a new National Park Service report.

In "Climate Exposure of U.S. National Parks in a New Era of Change"—published yesterday in the scientific journal PLOS ONE -- National Park Service scientists Nicholas Fisichelli and William Monahan find that present-day temperatures are at the high end of the range of temperatures measured since 1901 and point to changes in precipitation patterns over time.

By comparing 289 national parks' climate data over the past 10 to 30 years to the historical range of variability from 1901 to 2012, the scientists were able to determine that 235 of the parks, or 81 percent, have experienced extreme recent warm conditions; 78 have undergone recent extreme wet conditions, 43 recent extreme dry conditions, and 35 recent warm and dry conditions.

"Ongoing climate change will likely affect visitor experience in many of our national parks as well as how we manage our resources," Monahan said. "We might be experiencing unusually high temperatures, such as heat waves, during summer months when we tend to have peak visitation at our parks.

"Most of our parks are not large enough to be self-contained ecosystems in addressing broad-scale changes such as climate change," he added.

Time to 'adapt and deal with it'
Already, many of the country's national parks are in the tight grip of climate change, which continues to negatively affect surrounding habitats and local plant and animal species.

In Montana's Glacier National Park, rising temperatures are melting iconic glaciers; historic sagebrush grasslands in Idaho's City of Rocks National Reserve are being overtaken by pinyon pine forests; and the survival of the Yellowstone cutthroat trout population is being threatened by drought in Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park (ClimateWire, April 3; ClimateWire, Dec. 12, 2013).

"Whether or not you choose to think about the causes of climate change, all you have to do is open your eyes and look around you to see that climate change is real," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell recently said in a USA Today weekly video newsmaker series (ClimateWire, July 2). "So we can no longer pretend it's going to go away. We have to adapt and deal with it."

The secretary cited two 21st century challenges facing the National Park System: One is the need to engage with youth who may be too consumed in the digital world to have interest in the natural world, and the other is to address the changing landscape caused by climate change.

Need for a better 'conversation' in parks
"Through sound science and collaboration, we need to examine how we can help cultural and natural resources adapt to climate change and become more resilient to its impacts," Jewell said in a statement.

According to Monahan, there are a couple of tools that can be used to better manage national parks in the face of climate change: vulnerability assessments (to understand how different park resources are vulnerable to climate change); scenario planning (to address multiple possible futures); shared management with neighboring landowners (to facilitate the co-management of shared resources); and new ecological base lines (to consider the magnitude, rate and direction of climate change).

Still, he said, there's much more climate-change-related work and research to be done.

"What we're trying to do is drill down to the park level to conduct an analysis and deliver results to be used in more of a decisionmaking process to include management decisions, planning and education in national parks," Monahan said. "I think there are big opportunities for the results of our study to feed into the interpretation and education staff at parks to be able to have more of a conversation about how climates have been changing.

"Our parks are for the people," he added, "and the public will be a very important role in the steps that we take going forward."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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