Watching Climate Change Across the National Park System
Editor's note: Climate change. It's a controversial topic. Is it naturally occurring? Are humans driving it with their greenhouse gas emissions? Whichever answer you choose, climate change can be seen in changing storm patterns, more vigorous storms, droughts, and heat waves. Across the National Park System many changes are expected from climate change, from more wildfires and vanishing glaciers to invasions of non-native species and flight of long-term residents. Writer/photographer Michael Lanza, concerned that today's park landscapes will change significantly by the time his young kids are his age, has been touring the park system with his family to show his children what they might miss later in life. Here's an overview of his travels, which will result in a book due out next year.
I paused and stared at the narrow trail ahead of us, plastered in ice and clinging to the face of a cliff with a sheer drop-off of several hundred feet. Then I looked down at my 7-year-old daughter, Alex. Four feet tall and 50 pounds, she innocently trusted that her dad, holding her hand tightly, would guide her safely across that scary traverse—and the next, and the next, and so on for a thousand vertical feet on our descent of the steep and wildly exposed Grandview Trail into the Grand Canyon.
It seemed appropriate that my family’s year-long odyssey of national park adventures began in the Grand Canyon, walking amid a geologic record dating halfway back to the Earth’s very beginning.
We did, of course, get safely through that four-day, 29-mile hike last March. It was the first of 11 wilderness adventures that my wife, Penny, and I are taking with our kids—Nate, who turned 10 in September, and Alex—in national parks that are likely to be very different places by the time my kids are my age. We’re taking these trips for a book I’m writing about our experiences, and to tell the story about how climate change will radically overhaul our treasured wild lands in years to come.
Titled Before They’re Gone, it will be published in spring 2012 by Beacon Press. In the Grand Canyon, for instance, one challenge facing backpackers has always been the scarcity of water. We went there last spring, when snow was melting and springs and creeks that are dry much of the year were flowing; still, we had to carry enough water to get us through the trip’s final 24 hours. I left our last reliable spring with 13 liters—27.5 pounds—of water in my pack. In the much hotter and drier desert Southwest predicted by climate experts, water will become ever scarcer, forcing backpackers to carry heavier loads of water. My kids may find it impossible to repeat our trip someday with young kids of their own.
In early summer, we hiked to the world-famous waterfalls of Yosemite Valley, walking in their showers of mist. Scientists say those waterfalls, within just a couple of decades, will diminish and dry up weeks and months earlier in the year than they do now.
In July, we sea kayaked for five days in Alaska’s Glacier Bay, where the tidewater glaciers that calve bus-sized blocks of ice into the sea have retreated farther than any other glaciers on Earth.
In August, we backpacked through the amazing wildflower meadows of Mount Rainier, where catastrophic “Pineapple Express” storms have triggered record floods in recent years and are expected to become more common. A few days later, we explored tide pools filled with colorful starfish and sea anemone on the wild Olympic coast, at least one-third of which is threatened by rising sea level.
We saw a mountain goat up close and the largest remaining icefields of Glacier National Park, one of America’s iconic mountain landscapes. The last of its 7,000-year-old glaciers are projected to melt into the dirt within about a decade—when my kids are just 19 and 17.
In September, we caught the golden explosion of aspen foliage in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain, an experience threatened by various climate-related crises decimating trees of all kinds across the West. We also scrambled and rock climbed in November on the granite towers of Joshua Tree National Park, doomed to lose its namesake tree.
Still to come: cross-country skiing this month in Yellowstone, long one of the nation’s iceboxes, where winter is, incredibly, shrinking; and sea kayaking among alligators and great ibises in Florida’s Everglades. One of the world’s great biodiversity hot spots, Everglades is the U.S. national park arguably most threatened by climate change: Most of it would be inundated by an ocean rise of 23 inches—in the mid-range of projections of worldwide sea rise.
Our kids both had experience wilderness backpacking, paddling rivers, rock climbing, and ski touring with us, so we felt confident that we could safely pull off these trips. Still, Penny and I knew none of them would be easy—even for many adults. From occasional nine- and 10-mile days on the trail to sea kayaking in deadly cold waters, our adventures involved some hardships and risks.
So far, our year of adventure has been magical. Our experience reminds me of the words of John Muir, who said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” I think his implied meaning was that you don’t know what you will receive until you go seeking it.
That’s exactly what I believe we have found.
Michael Lanza is Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine. See his stories and photos of his adventure travels at The BigOutside. Reach him at , and follow twitter.com/MichaelALanza and www.facebook.com/pages/TheBigOutsidecom/122369157802280