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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


Bat: My intention is not to denigrate people, but to expose fallacies in reasoning and challenge ideas. Perhaps you can give me some specific, concrete examples and excerpts of my writing that directly degenerates or disparages individuals rather than ideas and arguments. I'm not going around calling people whacko, stupid, or idiots. It seems to me that some people simply take offense at having their cherished beliefs criticized and are mistaking that as a personal attack.

"If by credible you mean Liberal, then no". Now who's committing "association fallacy"? And I do believe I challenged your fact-challenged "findings" quite adequately, thank you. As have many other posters whom you have denigrated.

If you don't want people to get upset you shouldn't disparage them just because they don't agree with you. This line of discourse isn't getting us anywhere which was probably your intent all along.

Bat: I'm not sure why you're getting so upset and making personal attacks rather than attacking ideas. Nothing in my comment was meant to disparage the individual behind the comment.

Rail transit contributes to global warming. "Most light-rail lines use as much or more energy per passenger mile as an average SUV, and many emit more pounds of CO2 per passenger mile than the average automobile. While some rail transit operations are energy and CO2 efficient, the energy and CO2 costs of construction overwhelm any savings."

Are you getting your data from a credible source...?

If by "credible" you mean Liberal, then no. It comes from the libertarian think tank, CATO. Of course, feel free to take the easy way out and commit the association fallacy (a type of ad hominem) rather than challenging the findings with empirical evidence.

Anonymous: I have far more questions than answers when it comes to global warming. In that way, I'm the exact opposite of those who are fundamentally certain of global warming. I have offered up many concrete solutions and constructive ideas to fix national park management; perhaps you've missed those.

Man-made carbon emissions are now above the ‘worst case’ scenario envisioned by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), causing the most rapid global warming seen since the peak of the last Ice Age. At the same time the carbon is acidifying the oceans, with harmful consequences for certain plankton and shellfish.

“At current emission rates it is possible we will pass the critical level of 450 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere by 2040. That’s the level when, it is generally agreed, global climate change may become catastrophic and irreversible,” they add. “At that point we can expect to see the loss of most of our coral reefs and the arctic seas.”

“The climate is currently warming faster than the worst case known from the fossil record, about 56 million years ago, when temperatures rose about 6 degrees over 1000 years. If emissions continue it is not unreasonable to expect … warming of 5.5 degrees by the end of this century.”

Andrew S. Brierley, and Michael J. Kingsford. Impacts of climate change on marine organisms and ecosystems. Current Biology, 2009; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.05.046

Frank seem to have an answer for everything but concrete solutions or constructive ideas.

Frank - Sorry, but you are flat out WRONG about mass transit using "as much petroleum as private vehicles". A 2002 study by the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute found that public transportation in the U.S uses approximately half the fuel required by cars, SUV's and light trucks. In addition, the study noted that "private vehicles emit about 95 percent more carbon monoxide, 92 percent more volatile organic compounds and about twice as much carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide than public vehicles for every passenger mile traveled". This was not the only study to document the positive effect mass transit has on high-population density areas. Also, I'll repeat what I said about car sharing - one shared car takes 15-20 private vehicles off the road! Yes, we still use fossil fuels - but we use a LOT less than you assume.

I am not "attempting" to take personal responsibility - I HAVE, and CONTINUE to take personal responsibility. To suggest otherwise is insulting. And "staying home" is not an option. Are you getting your data from a credible source, or are you making it up as you go along to fit your views?

Bat: mass transit often uses as much petroleum as private vehicles. Electricity from light rail often comes from coal-fired power plants. Fossil fuel energy powers the construction of light rail lines, infrastructure, and train cars, and it often takes decades of ridership before that carbon generation is neutralized. Many urban buses have been shown to consume as much fuel per passenger mile as an SUV.

I'm glad that some have attempted to take personal responsibly (by not owning a car), but taking mass transit is often as polluting as driving.

Better to stay home, just to be safe.

Richard: If you want to talk about "playing with statistics", you ought to Google hockey stick graph to see what Mann and other global warming hysterics are willing to pull to advance their political agendas.


One of the important qualities the AT has for flora and fauna is its protected nature. While there are indeed other parks and forests and yards neighboring it, there's no guarantee those landscapes will remain preserved down through the years. As development/sprawl starts chipping away at those, the AT's corridor becomes more valuable to birds, insects, butterflies, and yes, even deer and bear. I wouldn't call that a weak conclusion.

Here's a snippet from the AT MEGA-Transect (page 6):

Overall, studies show substantial decline in forested land in the Mid-Atlantic States and in Virginia from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, as well as increased fragmentation in the northeastern U.S.

Then, too (from page 11-12):

The A.T. corridor may harbor more rare, threatened and endangered species than any other National Park Service unit. Most of those species are plants, but rare animals are also found along the Trail. A.T. lands support more than nine federally-listed and 360 state-listed species of plants and animals. Perhaps most impressively, the A.T. also harbors more than 80 globally rare species. In total, more than 2,000 populations of these rare, threatened, and endangered species are found on A.T. lands.

More so, during my fellowship at Stanford earlier this year I met with a researcher who has been studying the movement of vegetation in relation to climate change, and he's chronicled that plants can move northward much more quickly than previously imagined. (His paper was still being reviewed at the time, otherwise I'd cite it.) I also met with other scientists (Dr. Terry Root, an eminent bird biologist) who believe "stepping stones" such as the lands protected by the AT will be vital to help plant and animal species cope with climate change. When you frame that contention within a paper (Global climate change and mammalian species diversity in U.S. national parks, by Catherine E. Burns, Kevin M. Johnston, and Oswald J. Schmitz, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University) published in 2003 by the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, you begin to appreciate the value of the AT:

Recent empirical studies strongly suggest that wildlife species are already responding to recent global warming trends with significant shifts in range distribution (generally northward) and phenology (e.g., earlier breeding, flowering, and migration).

This paper also addressed species loss and species gain in national parks due to climate change:

The projected influx of new species to the parks arises because of range expansion under climate change. That is, most species are expected to remain stable at or near their current geographic locations and to expand their range geographically northward. ... Our assessment indicates that national parks are not expected to meet their mandate of protecting current mammalian species diversity within park boundaries for several reasons. First, several national parks are expected to face significant losses in current species diversity. Second, all parks should experience a virtual tidal wave of species influxes as a direct consequence of vegetation shifts due to climate change. In the balance, the parks will realize a substantial shift in mammalian species composition of a magnitude unprecedented in recent geologic time.

Against this information and research, I don't think it's hard to appreciate that the AT is much, much more than "a continuous backcountry footpath for the enjoyment of people."

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