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Climate Change and National Parks: A Survival Guide For a Warming World


Editor's note: Climate change can be seen spreading across the landscape. In some cases it's visible through the retreat of glaciers. In others it's reflected in the warming waters in Rocky Mountain streams at the height of summer, or in the intensity of storms that rake the landscape. The National Parks Conservation Association, in a just-released 60-page report, looks at how climate change might impact wildlife in the national parks, and suggests actions that can be taken to mitigate those impacts. Over the coming days we'll share this report with you. This, the first installment, looks at five steps that can be taken to help wildlife in the parks cope with climate-change impacts. The entire report can be found at this page.

The effects of climate change have been visible for years in our national parks. Glaciers are disappearing faster than scientists had predicted even a few years ago. Native trees and animals are losing ground because changing temperature and weather patterns are making the availability of food, water and shelter less certain. Fish and wildlife are being driven from their national park homes by changes that are unfolding faster than the animals’ ability to adapt.

Climate change is here and now, affecting the coral reefs in Florida at Biscayne National Park, lodgepole pines in Rocky Mountain National Park and animals that rely on snow in Yellowstone National Park. The danger signs are a clear call to action for the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit citizens’ organization that works to enhance and restore America’s national parks for present and future generations. What’s happening in the parks is symptomatic of changes unfolding across the larger landscapes to which they are inseparably connected, the same landscapes that contain our communities. Changes that harm wildlife — depriving them of food, water, or shelter — will ultimately harm us.

Given the iconic importance of parks, and that they protect core ecoregions of this country, working to safeguard parks and their wildlife from climate change should be a central strategy in safeguarding our nation from climate change. Solutions are neither simple nor quick and easy. It will take decisive action on the part of our federal government and all of us to meet the challenge and keep our faith with future generations. To avoid the potentially catastrophic loss of animal and plant life, it is imperative that we wean ourselves from energy sources like coal and oil that are accelerating rising temperatures and causing unnatural climate change. And it is equally imperative that we pursue new strategies to preserve functioning ecosystems and the full diversity of life they support.

America’s national parks are showing the signs of climate change. From Yosemite’s forests in California to the Gulf Stream waters of the Florida coast, from the top of the Rocky Mountains to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, these lands and the incredible diversity of life they support are all feeling the heat. The choice is now ours to either chronicle their decline or take actions to make our national parks part of the climate change solution. If we fail to act, many species of fish and wildlife could disappear from the parks — or even become extinct. That we must reduce global warming pollution to protect our natural world and human communities is now understood by many. But that is not all we must do.

Unnatural climate change is already underway and will continue for decades even if we put a stop to all global warming pollution today. Additional steps must be taken now to safeguard wildlife. We must protect the places that will help wildlife survive as the climate changes, manage wildlife anticipating the changes ahead, and improve the ecological health of the national parks and their surrounding landscapes to give fish and wildlife a fighting chance to survive unnatural climate change.

National Parks Conservation Association advocates five steps that, taken together, will help safeguard fish and wildlife, their homes, and our communities, from climate change. Here’s what needs to be done:

#1: Stop contributing to climate change

Many wildlife species are struggling to cope with climate changes already underway. Some will not be able to endure much more change, and could disappear from national parks and even go extinct if climate change is unchecked. We must limit its effects by rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions and switching to less-polluting sources of energy.

■ Coral reefs protected by Biscayne and Virgin Islands national parks might not survive if we fail to reduce carbon dioxide pollution that is warming and acidifying the ocean.

■ Salmon might disappear from Olympic, North Cascades, and Mount Rainier national parks if climate change continues to alter stream flows, increase water temperatures, and create extreme downpours that wipe out young salmon.

■ Grizzly bears, birds, fish, and other animals in Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain national parks could decline if the lodgepole and whitebark pine forests that sustain them continue to be wiped out by the advance of bark beetles, drought, and other climate change-related forces.

#2: Reduce and eliminate existing harms that make wildlife more vulnerable to climate change

The damaging effects of climate change are compounded by existing stresses on wildlife. Air and water pollution, development of adjacent wild lands, logging and mining, and other forces are harming national park wildlife now, and adding climate change to the mix could be disastrous. By reducing and eliminating these environmental harms we can significantly decrease the vulnerability of plants, fish, and wildlife to climate change as well as produce rapid and tangible benefits — such as clean air and water — that both people and wildlife need to thrive.

■ Water pollution and non-native species are already stressing waterfowl, shorebirds, and migratory birds that visit Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and other national parks in the Great Lakes region. By cleaning up water pollution and combating invasive species, we can give birds that depend on the Great Lakes a better chance to survive climate-related changes.

■ Historic overharvesting, disease, and pollution have caused a massive decline in Chesapeake Bay oysters. A more aggressive approach to reducing these threats would help the bay’s oysters survive climate change stresses such as warmer waters and heavier floods that flush pollution in to the Bay and introduce more fresh water than the oysters can tolerate.

■ Pesticides, disease, and non-native trout have nearly eliminated the mountain yellow-legged frog from Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon national parks. Reducing these threats and restoring healthy populations of frogs throughout the parks could help them survive the loss of shallow ponds and streams expected to occur in some areas as the climate continues to warm.

#3: Give wildlife freedom to roam

Climate change will cause some wildlife to move outside the parks’ protected boundaries, while other species may move in. Because national parks, like all protected areas, are interconnected with surrounding landscapes, cooperation and coordination among all land owners — public and private — is essential to preserve functioning ecosystems and the wildlife they support. National parks can play a key role in conserving wildlife across the landscape. In some cases they provide natural corridors; in other cases new corridors will be needed to connect parks and other protected lands so that wildlife can move in response to climate change.

■ Thanks to the efforts of the National Park Service, there is an unbroken, 2,175-mile corridor of protection, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Stretching from Georgia, north through Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah national parks, to Maine, the trail and its network of parks stands ready to serve as a corridor and refuge for species that need to move in response to climate change.

■ Desert bighorn sheep that frequent Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef national parks shift location in response to seasons and weather. As climate change alters precipitation and vegetation patterns, new migration patterns could emerge. Working together, wildlife managers and private landowners can ensure pathways are available for bighorn sheep to access food and water they need to thrive.

■ The caribou that live in and pass through Alaska’s high arctic parks — Noatak and Bering Land Bridge national preserves, Kobuk Valley National Park, and Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve — also roam across a landscape with a patchwork of federal, state, and tribal owners. As climate change renders traditional calving grounds and winter feeding areas unsuitable, wildlife managers working together can identify new habitat and ensure the path is clear for caribou to get there.

#4: Adopt “climate smart” management practices

“Climate smart” management includes four key elements: (1) training national park managers to build climate change into their work, (2) establishing guidance and policies that enable park staff to work closely and equally with other federal, state, local and private landowners, (3) providing sufficient funding and staffing for the challenge at hand, and (4) creating a political and organizational setting that facilitates appropriate, timely, and collaborative action. While research and monitoring should be a part of any park’s approach to “climate smart” management, real focus needs to be placed on implementing management changes now based on what we already know.

■ For wolverines in Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, the loss of deep winter snows could mean fewer winter-killed animals that are essential to their diet. A healthy wolf population creates ample carrion. Further research could confirm that maintaining a healthy wolf population is a “climate smart” strategy for helping wolverines survive as winter snows decline.

■ Nestled between its larger neighbors in the Sierra Nevada Mountains — Yosemite and Sequoia — Devils Postpile National Monument is home to a great diversity of wildlife. But at only 800 acres, the park cannot by itself meaningfully address climate change impacts on its wildlife. So the park superintendent is developing a plan in coordination with managers of the surrounding national forest to protect wildlife throughout the larger ecosystem.

■ Northeast coastal parks like Acadia National Park and Fire Island National Seashore provide critical nesting and feeding areas along the Atlantic migratory flyway. Sea level rise threatens to swamp some bird habitat along the flyway. Working together, resource managers from the Park Service and other federal, state, and local agencies can identify and protect critical habitat, restore marshes, and take steps that allow coastal habitats the opportunity to shift inland.

#5: National parks lead by example

With more than 270 million annual visitors, a core education mission, and a tradition of scientific leadership, national parks have an unparalleled ability to engage Americans in the fight against climate change. National parks can help visitors understand climate change already occurring, the vulnerabilities of tomorrow, and how we can all reduce our contribution to global warming. National parks can also serve as natural laboratories for testing innovative ways to safeguard wildlife from the effects of climate change, and to reduce greenhouse gases that are causing climate change.

■ Throughout the country, national parks such as Everglades, the Smokies, Glacier, and Yosemite, have banded together as Climate Friendly Parks. They share common goals of reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions and demonstrate sustainable solutions to others. NPCA operates Do Your Part!, a program that carries the parks’ sustainability message to the general public and provides individuals with opportunities to do their part to reduce global warming pollution.

■ The National Park Service is beginning to experiment with scenario planning, a model that identifies future scenarios that could occur with increasing climate change and explores management responses for each. The model will help managers develop action and monitoring plans that give them the information and flexibility they need to maximize the chance not of the single “best” outcome — a risky approach when uncertainty is high — but the chance of some positive outcome.

Tomorrow: Coral Reefs of Southern Florida and the Caribbean


Jennie Hoffman, PhD, Senior Scientist, Climate Adaptation, EcoAdapt

Eric Mielbrecht, MS, Senior Scientist and Director of Operations, EcoAdapt

Lara Hansen, PhD, Chief Scientist and Executive Director, EcoAdapt

Kurt Repanshek

Cover: Brown bear and seagulls in Katmai National Park, Alaska © David Tipling/Getty


Kurt, got the complete NPCA pdf report on climate change in the national parks. A real wake call...awesome work ahead! Many thanks for the article report.

In some cases it's visible through the retreat of glaciers.

Debatable. The causes of glacial retreat, occurring since the mid-1800s, are still under investigation. A recent study from India casts doubts that CO2 is causing Himalayan glaciers to retreat. New research indicates that the Earth's orbit and increased solar input is what drives ice ages, not CO2.

It will take decisive action on the part of our federal government

Hmm. Of course. Expand the role of the federal government. That's always the answer. Look how decisively the federal government handled Katrina, Iraq, and the management of national parks.

Coral reefs protected by Biscayne and Virgin Islands national parks might not survive if we fail to reduce carbon dioxide pollution ...

Carbon dioxide is not pollution; it's a naturally occurring gas. Life on Earth depends on carbon dioxide. It's also a trace gas, and makes up only 3% of the natural green house gas effect. (Water vapor accounts for about 85%, clouds about 5-10%.)

The following graph shows how much the CO2 content of the atmosphere has risen in the last 50 years at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. The graph has a vertical scale that only extends to 1% of the atmosphere, and as can be seen, the increase in CO2 is barely visible. This graph is not a trick…it looks different from what you are used to seeing because CO2 is usually plotted with a greatly magnified vertical scale to make the CO2 rise look more dramatic. Yes, we might double the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere by late in this century…but 2 times a very small number is still a very small number. Graph here.

I'm sure many readers will dismiss this comment due to the cognitive dissonance it causes. Skeptics are needed to counter the statism and dogmatic pontification associated with global warming hysteria. We need more debate, less fundamentalism, and a balanced approach.

More of this Al Gore stuff here. I like the parks as much as the next guy, but I do not believe anyone has proven that the so called global warming is caused by other than natural changes, not withstanding the huge spin machine. Like Frank, I am not buying in. Had those that worry so much been open to nuclear power 20-30 years ago, we would have lots of efficient, clean power taking the place of coal and gas powered plants. But NO! So many stand in the way of progress based on unproven science. I guess some will not be happy until we are back in caves again.

I see we still have a few ostrich's with their heads buried in the sand with there fluke warm science in regards to global warming. Dr. Hansen (world fame climatologist) from NASA has proven with his meticulous research that global warming is a poignant issue that should be firebrand in everyones brain. The damn earth is heating up folks and wake up and smell the coffee. The old school of thought with it's dead pan thinkers are dragging us downtown with there boogie man and ignorant science. Progressive science with rational scientist (like Dr. Hansen) have given us much more clear indicators that global warming is manmade to the most extent. I'm sure if you have huge stock with Standard Oil you would probably would think differently.

"■ Thanks to the efforts of the National Park Service, there is an unbroken, 2,175-mile corridor of protection, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Stretching from Georgia, north through Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah national parks, to Maine, the trail and its network of parks stands ready to serve as a corridor and refuge for species that need to move in response to climate change."

I've hiked the AT and this is ridiculous. Kurt, who came up with that? First of all the AT is not "unbroken" by civilization, it runs through many towns. Secondly, is there any science to back up that wildlife could use it as a corridor? Come on, this sounds like a dream out of someone's childhood Disney fantasy. Oh, and thirdly, I'm not sure the NPS deserves so much credit for developing and maintaining the AT.

HH, if you go to the NPCA site, there's a text version with footnotes that are tied to all the science that went into the report. And yes, there are studies pointing to the viability of the AT corridor as serving such a purpose. I'm traveling, otherwise I'd email you the studies.

Frank C,
The OSU article quotes one professor who says they are"pretty certain" that the earth's wobbles caused warming, and that "CO2 amplified a process already started". Far cry from the definitive posture you stand by. Many more qualified scientists all over the world have other views. Not quite the type of article I would stand by to defend the world, but you have your reasons. I wonder if the CO2 at that time was even close to what we have now? I doubt it.

Frank C,
Here is a better graph that has both the Mauna Loa, Hawaii data and one that is tied to a longer timeline:

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