Don't Take National Park Landscapes for Granted

These USGS photos, one from about 1940 and one from 2006, clearly show how far Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park has retreated under climate change.

How comfortable have we become with national park settings? With the big sweep of granite that frames the Yosemite Valley, with Old Faithful's not-quite-so-faithful demonstrations of steam and hot water, with fall's colorful deciduous forests of Great Smoky and Shenandoah?

Do we take these settings for granted? Have we, perhaps, gotten too comfortable with driving through the tunnel of trees that lines Yellowstone National Park's South Entrance Road, too used to viewing the Yosemite Valley from the mouth of Wawona Tunnel and too accustomed to the kaleidoscope of fall that can be found in Shenandoah and Great Smoky because, after all, our lifetimes are but a blink in geologic time.

We don't live long enough to witness significant change, geologic or otherwise, in the national parks. We weren't around when the glaciers cut Yosemite's fantastic valley, when they sculpted Logan Pass in Glacier National Park, or when they bulldozed down the Mid-Atlantic region and left forests of spruce and fir along the roof of Great Smoky.

And so it's understandably difficult to envision significant change in the National Park System (although many of us will be around when Glacier's rivers of ice are gone, an occurrence that's right around the corner). Change not so much geologically, but in wildlife, vegetation, even fish.

It's coming.

Already moose are said to be heading north out of Isle Royale National Park because it's getting too hot for their comfort. The colorful reefs that time and marine-life built in Biscayne, Dry Tortugas, and Virgin Islands national parks are on the decline, victims of disease, too-warm waters, and, in the not too distant future, waters turned acidic. At Joshua Tree National Park there are fears the climate will grow so hot that the namesake trees won't be able to stand it.

Look close the next time you visit Sequoia or Kings Canyon, any of the national parks in California for that matter, and you just might notice the subtle changes the latest drought is exacting. More dust in the air, shrubs encroaching onto meadows, trees on southern exposures that are dying of thirst, wildfires that are more prevalent. At Rocky Mountain National Park, crews are in a battle with bark beetles.

These and other changes, some subtle, some not so, are on their way and spreading across the park system, courtesy of rising temperatures. They say the way you boil a frog is put it into a pot of cold water and slowly heat it up. Well, you might say the Earth is in a pot of cold water and there's fire down below.

“I feel very strongly that we’re on the edge of a mass extinction. If we go up by 2 degrees Celsius, we could lose as many as 20 percent of the known species," says Dr. Terry Root, a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment and a professor at Stanford University who specializes in the area of wildlife population and distribution response to changing climate. "The known number of species is 1.8 million, so that’s about 400,000 species. Are we going to hit 2 degrees? In my opinion there’s no way we’re not going to hit 2 degrees."

Where do you begin to imagine a loss of 400,000 species? What might blink out? Plants that you've grown accustomed to see bloom? Bees that pollinate those plants, along with most of the crops society has come to take for granted? Cutthroat trout whose waters have become too warm?

Such a great effect on the biology, and biodiversity, of national parks likely will have a surprising effect. Oh, places like Arches and Canyonlands national parks, and surely Death Valley as well, more than likely won't change too much, outwardly, under climate change. But head north into the woodland and riverine parks and the impacts could very well prove shocking. Can you imagine Redwood National Park without redwoods?

"If you’re talking about forests, or certain kinds of mountain ecosystems, or river ecosystems, I think that the biology has a lot to do with the landscape form," Dr. Philippe Cohen, executive director of the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve at Stanford. "And if you see a real significant biological shift, you will also see real significant shifts in how those landscapes are experienced and appear."

Now, the Earth is a very dynamic place. There's a long, long history of climate change, and some of it fairly recent. The Little Ice Age, for instance, which chilled the mid-19th Century. But climate scientists tell us the difference with the change we're entering into is not natural, but rather driven by humankind. One of the most recent reports underscoring that, Ecological Impacts of Climate Change, was published by the National Academies of Science last year. Written by the Committee on Ecological Impacts of Climate Change, National Research Council, the report notes that:

Both natural variability and human activities are contributing to observed global and regional warming and both will contribute to future climate trends. It is very likely that most of the observed warming for the last 50 years has been due to the increase in greenhouse gases related to human activities (in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, "very likely" specifically means that scientists believe the statement is at least 90 percent likely to be true; "likely" specifically means about two-thirds to 90 percent likely to be true.) While debate over details is an important part of the scientific process, the climate science community is virtually unanimous on this conclusion.

Not only is humankind a key player in climate change, but we've reached the point where no matter how hard we work at reducing greenhouse gases and slowing climate change, Baby Boomers almost assuredly won't live to see the fruits of those efforts.

“I think the next 40 or 50 years are a done deal. I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about here. I think we’re talking about the ensuing 50 years," says Dr. Cohen. "But the next 50 years are a done deal. We could stop carbon emissions today, flat, the next 50 years are done. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen the next 50 years, and I think we’re going to have very little to say how it gets played out. I think the perturbations that are coming are going to happen no matter what.

"I think the real issue is what happens after. And I think that the issues are profound enough that they really are a substantial threat to civilization. When all is said and done, it’s not what happens in the next 50 years, it’s whether there’s going to be anything worth having in 100 years," he says. "So, yeah, I think it’s serious stuff. And humans are terrible at long-term thinking, but this is a long-term issue."

Perhaps, though, the key is to not think long-term, but rather to think what we can do in the short-term to benefit our children and grandchildren in their lives.


The overall climate will ultimately change with or with out human interaction. We are just pushing it along faster than what the earth can handle. There have been climate changes over the last several millions of years, hot to cold, wet to dry. But with humans in the mix this time around, we are looking at long term damage and the high possibility of ever increasingly severe weather patterns and an ever changing planet.

Where I live we had a stetch of about 8 years of mild winters-no significant snowfall or storms-and this year we got hammered by multiple storms and record amounts of snow. I've been watching the weather since I was young, I'm in my mid-20's now, and have never seen so much severe weather nation wide. It just goes to show that what we're doing now and have done in the past 50-60 years, is effecting our lives and our planet. The time has come for people to step up and do something, change how they live to better our planet and to make sure that future generations can enjoy all of natures beauty.

I still have lots of nature to see and want my daughter, barely 1yr old to see these beautiful landscapes and parks before they're gone for good.

this year we got hammered by multiple storms and record amounts of snow.

And this year is also the deepest solar minimum in a century. Not sure you can blame the snow on human-caused climate change. As for severe weather, there has always been severe weather, and the effects of climate change on severe weather events are still being studied and debated. say we CAN change the climate...reverse "global warming." So, when the needle starts to go from cooling, what do we do then? Global cooling will kill us faster than warming! So do we then drive more SUVs? Pollute more to reverse it? Burn tires?
Answer please, alarmists!

I think it looks more awesome with the lake versus the glacier!

Global cooling will kill us faster than warming!


Dr. Root's comments are interesting. I think it's likely we're already having a mass extinction, the severity of which will only be able to be judged several million years from now. His predictions of extinctions at the specific level are somewhat oddly worded and alarmist, however. Such a significant percentage of known species are insects and members of the various worm phyla, it's hard to get a grasp on numbers. It would be more instructive to look at the familiar level (i.e. how many families risk complete annihilation or decimation) or better yet, how much diversity is lost in various systems. For example, if 100,000 species of beetle became extinct in the next ten years, would that have as negative of an impact on biodiversity as the loss of two thirds of the species (about 150 or so) in the family Pinaceae (pines)?

And while rapid climate change is a blow to diversity, I will continue to believe it pales next to habitat loss and fragmentation as the driving force of extinction. And I think habitat loss/fragmentation combined with anthropogenic introduction of invasives should be of greater concern than climate change. It doesn't make a lick of difference what the climate is if we keep making babies that need more and more land!

After hearing E.O. Wilson's (Harvard's famed conservation biologist) lecture on biodiversity recently, which he stated were in for some deep trouble folks. Professor Wilson gives us many classic examples how man is screwing up the world ecosystems globally. Many of his profound lectures, writings and well written books supports his claim that mother nature is loosing ground fast to repair itself. Just remember mother nature bats last folks. Where's old Ed Abby when we need him most...which is now.

Kirby, I'm not sure habitat fragmentation is as great a threat to extinctions as climate change. We long have struggled with habitat fragmentation and coped -- not solved -- but coped with it via genetic importations (ie. Florida panthers), recovery/reintroduction programs (ie. gray wolf, elk, mountain goats), and even land acquisitions (either outright or via access rights, such as the case with bison range north of Yellowstone).

Climate change is something not so easily controlled. Just think what would happen if all the pollinators vanished. Who would pollinate the crops that feed society? Where will polar bears go once the Arctic ice sheet melts? When corals die, how will it impact all the marinelife that rely on them?

There are many, many ramifications of climate change -- some we understand, some we don't, some we probably haven't even anticipated -- that I think it stands to be the major player in extinctions if left unchecked.

Thanks for covering this critical issue Kurt.

I know somebody who is deeply involved in land purchases to preserve habitat. He told me that now they are focusing more and more on migration corridors, since habitat protected by their purchases probably will not support the same animals soon. As your articles says, no matter how strongly we act now, the next 40-50 years are probably already fated for significant changes. So we need to do what we can to limit extinction by allowing animals to migrate.

As to extinction from habitat loss from development (urban and ag) vs climate change, my hunch is that the former is still having more impact, but I'm not sure how long that will last.

It's probably too late to save the glaciers of Glacier NP, but at least El Cap won't melt.

Btw, heat waves kill far more people that cold snaps and the glaciation of ice ages usually takes tens of thousands of years to develop.

[b]Just thought I would add some "Food For Thought" Several years ago Rush Limbaugh did an "Earth Day Show". On this show

Charlton Heston wanted to read the foreword of Jurassic Park, the book by Michael Crichton.

The Following is that reading:

HESTON: You think man can destroy the planet? What intoxicating vanity.

Let me tell you about our planet. Earth is four-and-a-half-billion-years-old. There’s been life on it for nearly that long, 3.8 billion years. Bacteria first; later the first multi-cellular life, then the first complex creatures in the sea, on the land. Then finally the great sweeping ages of animals, the amphibians, the dinosaurs, at last the mammals, each one enduring millions on millions of years, great dynasties of creatures rising, flourishing, dying away — all this against a background of continuous and violent upheaval.

Mountain ranges thrust up, eroded away, cometary impacts, volcano eruptions, oceans rising and falling, whole continents moving, an endless, constant, violent change, colliding, buckling to make mountains over millions of years. Earth has survived everything in its time. It will certainly survive us.

If all the nuclear weapons in the world went off at once and all the plants, all the animals died and the earth was sizzling hot for a hundred thousand years, life would survive, somewhere: under the soil, frozen in Arctic ice.

Sooner or later, when the planet was no longer inhospitable, life would spread again. The evolutionary process would begin again. It might take a few billion years for life to regain its present variety. Of course, it would be very different from what it is now, but the earth would survive our folly, only we would not. If the ozone layer gets thinner, ultraviolet radiation sears the earth, so what? Ultraviolet radiation is good for life. It’s powerful energy. It promotes mutation, change. Many forms of life will thrive with more UV radiation. Many others will die out. Do you think this is the first time that’s happened?

Think about oxygen. Necessary for life now, but oxygen is actually a metabolic poison, a corrosive glass, like fluorine. When oxygen was first produced as a waste product by certain plant cells some three billion years ago, it created a crisis for all other life on earth. Those plants were polluting the environment, exhaling a lethal gas. Earth eventually had an atmosphere incompatible with life. Nevertheless, life on earth took care of itself. In the thinking of the human being, a hundred years is a long time.

A hundred years ago we didn’t have cars, airplanes, computers, or vaccines. It was a whole different world, but to the earth, a hundred years is nothing. A million years is nothing. This planet lives and breathes on a much vaster scale. We can’t imagine its slow and powerful rhythms, and we haven’t got the humility to try.

We’ve been residents here for the blink of an eye. If we’re gone tomorrow, the earth will not miss us.

Semper Fi

Lots of VERY bad science out there...I say just follow the money...lots of money to be made in hysteria!!