What climate change is doing to the parks

A sample of the shifts already underway due to a warming climate.

 

Climate change has already brought irreversible changes to the national parks. And more are imminent, without major reductions in pollution from cars, power plants and deforestation. Here’s a sampling. 

MELTING GLACIERS 
The elevation of Muir Glacier in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve has dropped in places by 2,100 feet since 1948. This is one of many glaciers in southeast Alaska that have shrunk astoundingly in recent decades, dramatically changing what visitors see and contributing to sea-level rise. Scientists estimate that over the latter half of the 20th century, melting ice masses in Alaska and neighboring Canada have increased global sea level even more than the Greenland ice sheet has. Muir Glacier offers a great example of how the rich data from national parks has contributed to the global understanding of climate change. It’s among 168,000 glaciers used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to determine that human-created climate change is melting glaciers globally.

Yosemite toad
Paul Maier/cc via Wikipedia

SHIFTING BIOMES 
Since 1880, lodgepole and other pine trees have moved uphill into what once were subalpine meadows in Yosemite National Park. The thirsty trees have helped dry up a wetland ecosystem important for small mammals like marmots as well as high-elevation frogs and salamanders. Yosemite now is working on a restoration project to restore the meadows’ hydrological functioning. “You want them to remain wetlands,” says Linda Mazzu, Yosemite’s resource manager. “When trees invade, it’s like a biome shift.” A biome is the community of plants and animals in a particular region, and this was one of 23 biome shifts worldwide documented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Other biome shifts are underway — boreal conifer forests moving into tundra and alpine biomes in the Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm Natural Heritage Area and in Noatak National Preserve.

VORACIOUS BEETLES 
Climate change is causing extensive bark beetle outbreaks across the West, because winters have been too mild to kill the insects and trees are stressed by drought. Rocky Mountain National Park has been hit especially hard, with 90 percent of the park’s forested areas affected. Hundreds of thousands of lodgepole, ponderosa, Engelmann spruce and other evergreens have died. Park staff remove standing dead trees at campsites and other heavily visited areas so they don’t fall on people or property. They also spray insecticide on thousands of tree trunks in non-wilderness areas. But 95 percent of the park is designated wilderness, and the beetles, which are native, have free rein there. The park has planted a small number of trees, but leaves most areas for natural regeneration.

Saguaro National Park in 1935, top, and 2010.
National Park Service

LOOMING DIE-OFFS OF DESERT PLANTS 
The exquisite desert plants of Arizona’s Saguaro National Park are adapted for dry conditions, but climate change may make their Sonoran Desert home too hot even for them. Scientists project major die-offs of saguaro, palo verde, ocotillo and creosote bush. And even if the planet’s people manage to modestly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, scientists project that 90 percent of Joshua Tree National Park could become too dry for Joshua trees by 2100.

SHRINKING WILDLIFE HABITAT 
In Mount Rainier, North Cascades and Olympic national parks, scientists predict that climate change will dramatically shrink habitats for high-elevation mammals. As temperatures warm and snowpack decreases, hoary marmot, wolverine, mountain goat, American pika, American marten, snowshoe hare and Canada lynx will probably lose most of their current turf. Small patches of mountaintop habitat in national parks will become increasingly important for the conservation of these species, because other suitable homes for them are likely to be gone.

Yellowstone geyser
National Park Service

SNOW AND SNOWMOBILES 
Across the West, snowpacks have plummeted because of human-caused climate change. That trend is likely to continue, disrupting Yellowstone’s $60 million winter tourism industry, among other things, according to a paper published this month in PLOS One by Michael Tercek and Anne Rodman, the park’s acting branch chief for physical science. By the end of this century, they predict that, during 70 percent of the winter season, there won’t be enough snow for snowmobiles and snow coaches to drive into Yellowstone from its West entrance. The agency might eventually have to plow its roads for cars, they say, if it wants to maintain high levels of year-round tourism.

This part of a special report on the state of the national parks.

Return to:

Meet the man helping the Park Service prepare for a hotter future
High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • RANCH HAND & HOUSING OPPORTUNITY IN DURANGO, CO
    Remodeled home with the opportunity to work off part of rent. Renter(s) must be available to help with lifting, irrigation & outdoor chores, 15-40 hrs...
  • INDIGENOUS LANDSCAPES AND COMMUNITIES DIRECTOR
    YOUR POSITION WITH TNC The Indigenous Landscapes & Communities Program is part of the North America Region's Conservation Collaboration team. The Conservation Collaboration team works...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...