You are here

Climate Change and National Parks: A Survival Guide for a Warming World -- Northern Flying Squirrel and other Threatened Mammals


The Northern Red Squirrel could cope with climate change by relying on corridors such as the Appalachian Trail. Maryland Department of Natural Resources photo.

Editor's note: This is the eighth excerpt from the National Parks Conservation Association's latest report on how climate change is impacting national parks. This section focuses on how corridors such as the Appalachian Trail can help species cope with climate change. The entire report can be found at this page.

The climate is not static. Ice ages come and go, pushing rivers of ice south and then pulling them back north across continents as temperatures and snowfalls rise and fall. Animal and plant species either stay ahead of these icy incursions and adapt, or perish. After the glaciers retreat, the plant and animal species that have shifted geographically sometimes remain in their new locations. But when climate change unfolds relatively quickly, as we are seeing today, many animals — like the northern flying squirrel — may not be able to stay ahead of the curve.

Geographic shifts of living communities can be seen at Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Hike toward the park’s mountaintops and you’ll find a geographically unusual spruce-fir ecosystem that took hold there about 10,000 years ago when the glaciers of the Wisconsin Ice Age retreated. In the highest and coolest of the Smokies’ elevations there are many plant species that today are more commonly found nearly 1,000 miles to the north in the boreal forests of Maine and Canada. But what will these species do in response to the prospect of higher temperatures resulting from accelerated unnatural climate change? Where will they go? Where can they go? Some species’ ranges have already altered in response to climate change. Some have been pushed to higher elevations or latitudes by a warming climate, while others have expanded into newly hospitable territory.

There have been concerns that national parks will become genetic islands surrounded by roads and development that act as barriers to the mingling of individuals and genes separated by those borders. Such concerns led to the launch of the Yellowstone-to-Yukon land conservation movement in 1997. The effort seeks to protect a corridor of lands from Yellowstone to the Yukon that would facilitate species’ movement and their genetic exchange. Wolverines are one example of a species that might benefit from this corridor as climate change unfolds.

Similar concerns of genetic isolation led to the biologist-assisted infusion of Texas panther genes into the Florida panther population of Big Cypress National Preserve through the introduction of eight female panthers in 1995. National parks are recognized as critical enclaves for the protection of species, but linkages to other protected lands are necessary. Projections show that a doubling of carbon dioxide from baseline levels could cause some national parks to lose up to 20 percent of their mammalian species diversity due to predicted shifts in distribution ranges that would move their habitat beyond a park’s borders. Great Smoky Mountains National Park can expect to lose nearly 17 percent of its mammalian species as the park’s largely temperate deciduous forest is transformed into a warmer mixed forest, similar to those found to the south.

Among the species expected to be lost from the park under this change are the red squirrel, northern flying squirrel, and southern red-back vole. Shenandoah National Park, 469 miles to the north, and connected via the Blue Ridge Parkway, also stands to lose the red squirrel and the southern red-back vole. Just as some of the species currently living in the Smokies and Shenandoah are expected to shift their ranges north as climate change effects accumulate, species currently living farther south can be expected to move north into these parks. However, these movements can occur only if there are corridors connecting suitable habitats.

Fortunately, one north-south linkage already exists: the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Covering 2,175 miles and 250,000 acres from southern Georgia to northern Maine, the trail passes through Shenandoah National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and lands administered by various federal and state agencies along the way. It already serves as a vital corridor that provides habitat for flora and fauna up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Warblers, wild turkey, and once-endangered peregrine falcons are among the bird species that rely on the Appalachian Trail corridor. Overall, the corridor provides habitat for more than 2,000 rare, threatened, and endangered species, including more than 80 that are globally rare.


Though protected from development, the Appalachian corridor is not immune from outside impacts, beginning with the estimated 4 million hikers it receives each year. With that in mind, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, operating under an agreement with the National Park Service, is monitoring the pulse of this corridor to better understand the threats to its environment. With its vast network of volunteers, the Conservancy (through its Appalachian Trail MEGA-Transect project) is assessing how outside factors — invasive species, air pollution, and urban sprawl, for instance — are affecting the leafy corridor. Other entities, such as the Smithsonian Institution Conservation and Research Center, are also involved in projects along the trail.

By monitoring the environmental impacts along the trail corridor, land managers will be better able to manage the landscape for its long-term health. Developing monitoring programs to track climatic, biological, and ecological change will enable managers not just to see what’s changing, but also evaluate the effectiveness of their management strategies and make adjustments in a timely fashion.
It’s expensive to conduct monitoring programs and implement management strategies; therefore, it will be critical for Congress, the Department of Interior, and other entities to provide adequate support to the National Park Service and its partners involved in this work.

However well the Appalachian mountain chain has served as a corridor in the past, there is no guarantee that it will function equally well as a corridor under rapidly changing climatic conditions. We must therefore foster cooperation and coordination among government agencies and landowners neighboring national parks to accommodate shifts in species distribution that occur in response to climate change. Cooperation is essential to ensure the preservation of species, and the preservation of functioning ecosystems.

We Can Safeguard Appalachian Wildlife from Climate Change

Stop contributing to climate change

Wildlife species like the northern flying squirrel, red squirrel, and southern red-back vole could be driven out of Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah national parks if we fail to reduce carbon dioxide pollution and global warming that is transforming temperate deciduous forests into warmer mixed forests.

Give Appalachian wildlife freedom to roam

Protecting the network of existing federal and state conservation lands throughout the Appalachian Mountains, continuing to monitor wildlife migration patterns, and conserving additional lands that may be needed for the region to support wildlife migration, will help the plants and animals of the Appalachian region secure suitable new habitat as the climate warms.

Reduce and eliminate existing harms that make Appalachian wildlife more vulnerable to climate change

Air and water pollution, as well as encroaching development, are major existing stresses on the forests and wildlife of the Appalachian region. By reducing pollution and keeping inappropriate development at bay, we can help wildlife better cope with the new stresses wrought by climate change.

Tomorrow: Bighorn Sheep in the Southwest


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

Turner Foundation
Merck Family Fund
Ruth and Ben Hammett


I attended a countywide planning meeting yesterday where the county Planning Commission heard testimony from a number of experts in the fields of community planning, ocean sciences, economics, agriculture and commercial developments. Tourism is the primary economic driver for our county followed by agriculture, science and fishing. The ocean environment is particularly of critical importance to local residents. The meeting was open to the public, and the room was packed with people standing along the walls. We were treated to reports of deterioration of the surrounding coral reefs and loss of marine habitat. The updated countywide plan will include an expected three meter rise in sea level over the coming decades. Such a rise will have devastating impacts on the island coastal ecosystems and on communities and properties adjacent to beaches and within low areas that will be increasingly prone to storm surge flooding. There is also the concern that freshwater aquifers will be contaminated by rising salt water levels invading reserves. These concerns face virtually all coastal areas around the world.

To The Other Frank: I agree with your interpretation of door #2. I'm all for a cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable world! Thanks for the correction. Some Saudi prince once said that he was unafraid of losing oil revenue to 'green energy', saying "the Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones." I think most of us will be able to adapt.

Actually in the case of door number two, we spend tons of money and improve our lives by finding cheaper, more sustainable, forms of energy. This results in a cleaner, healthier, planet. It allows our children and our children's children to maintain an advanced lifestyle. It keeps our planet from being drilled and mined to death. It cleans up our air and water. And, ultimately, it allows folks to make millions of dollars by developing, building, installing and selling the new technologies, and saves billions of dollars from being funneled to overseas oil barons. The arctic wildlife refuge and other pristine places remain undrilled (for their few years worth of oil). No one gives anything up, we simply find new and more efficient ways of fueling our lives.
Doors two and four are both win, win.
In a way this is a lot like health care reform. If we do nothing energy (or health care) will become more and more expensive, and scarce. Soon only the rich will be able to afford these "luxuries".
We will continue to send our wealth overseas, and the decline of the United States is inevitable. Or we can take the lead, make bookoo denaro, and tell the Saudis (and others) thanks but no thanks. Cleaning up the planet and alleviating climate change are just bonuses. The choice is ours.

Again, it is always easy to find individual scientists (or even groups of scientists) to support a theory or point of view. It is very difficult to find over two thousand highly respected scientists from one hundred countries to agree about anything.

I don't think it's poor logic at all. As I understand the "fallacy of false choice", it involves choosing between only two alternatives when there are in fact more viable options available. Okay, so what ARE the other options? I see a lot of data cherry-picking to support your position, but I don't see you offering any other answers. I'm not convinced that variations in solar activity are the sole cause of climate change. And the reasons you have for discounting the effects of greenhouse gases don't bear close examination.

To Frank Not The Other Frank: Pardon me for butting into this party for the second time, but I couldn't help but notice that you might have drawn the wrong inference from your source. If I'm reading it right, Scafetta is saying data used by the IPCC is skewed because the data fails to take into account certain factors and mechanisms that would more accurately show solar effects on climate. He's not denying that greenhouse gases have an impact; what he's complaining about is the lack of accurate solar data. I would have to read his article in its entirety in order to find out what he considers "arbitrary and questionable assumptions", though - bet I can guess what they are.

Your "good sense" is poor logic. You've engaged in the fallacy of false choice.

If you will bear with me, here's a little exercise in good sense, no advanced degrees required:

Behind door #1: Forced climate change does not exist, and we don't do anything about it. We don't need to! Everyone is fat, rich, happy, and alive.

Behind door #2: Forced climate change does not exist, and we do something because we think it does exist. We spend tons of money for nothing. We're poorer, not so fat or happy, but alive.

Behind door #3: Forced climate change exists, and we do nothing about it. Fat City keeps their money for all the good it will do them on a dead planet. R.I.P.

Behind door #4: Forced climate change exists, and we do all we can to mitigate the damage. It will take a lot of work, be expensive and inconvenient to give up our habits. However, most will survive and there's a good chance the Earth will recover.

Which door will YOU pick? Do you really want to take that chance? We don't have to hail from Left Blogistan to realize it's time to clean up our toxic mess and go on a reduced carbon diet.

Other Frank: The IPCC is not immune from criticism; I recommend examing the following study (published last month) by Nicola Scafettaa, Department of Physics, Duke University: Empirical analysis of the solar contribution to global mean air surface temperature change.

The study's conclusion reads in part:

A comprehensive interpretation of multiple scientific findings indicates that the contribution of solar variability to climate change is significant and that the temperature trend since 1980 can be large and upward. However, to correctly quantify the solar contribution to the recent global warming it is necessary to determine the correct TSI behavior since 1980. Unfortunately, this cannot be done with certainty yet. The PMOD TSI composite, which has been used by the IPCC and most climate modelers, has been found to be based on arbitrary and questionable assumptions [Scafetta and Willson, 2009]. Thus, it cannot be excluded that TSI increased from 1980 to 2000 as claimed by the ACRIM scientific team. The IPCC [2007] claim that the solar contribution to climate change since 1950 is negligible may be based on wrong solar data in addition to the fact that the EBMs and GCMs there used are missing or poorly modeling several climate mechanisms that would significantly amplify the solar effect on climate. When taken into account the entire range of possible TSI satellite composite since 1980, the solar contribution to climate change ranges from a slight cooling to a significant warming, which can be as large as 65% of the total observed global warming. (Emphasis added.)

Appeal to majority ("the overwhelming majority of scientists...agree") and appeal to authority (the IPCC's "findings have been publicly endorsed by the national academies of science...") are a logical fallacies, not evidence.

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide

Recent Forum Comments