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Climate Change and the National Parks
Editor's note: Next to underfunding, climate change arguably is the biggest challenge the National Park Service will face in the years ahead. Here, in the latest of a recurring series of articles, the Traveler takes a look at how climate change already is affecting, and could in the future affect, the national park system.
Climate change slowly is changing the landscape of America’s national parks. As temperatures warm and storm traits alter, ecosystem change is anticipated and expected to carry a range of impacts. Already there have been drastic reductions in water levels in both Lake Mead and Glen Canyon national recreation areas, and Mount Rainier National Park has seen more “rain-on-snow” events that have collapsed ice caves, led to glacial retreat, and, in November 2006, devastated man-made infrastructure in the park.
At Craters of the Moon National Monument, officials recently observed the first occurrence of blister rust in limber pine; seasonal ice cover on Lake Superior is shrinking and leading to greater evaporation, which has an impact on Apostle Islands and Pictured Rocks national lakeshores, as well as Isle Royale National Park, and; sea levels at Everglades National Park are rising six times faster than the per-century rate noted during the past 2,400 years.
Glaciers are receding at Glacier, Glacier Bay, North Cascades, Mount Rainier, and Wrangell-St. Elias national parks. As well as impacting the parks’ long-term water resources – at North Cascades, there has been a 30 percent reduction in summer stream-flow in the Thunder Creek watershed -- the loss of glaciers and ice fields could impact species such as the wolverine, which den in snow-pack covering boulder fields and scavenge meals from wildlife killed by avalanches.
At national parks across the West there are likely to be more wild fires, more vigorous infestations of exotic vegetation and species, and perhaps a change in the native fauna as species that can't tolerate warming weather move north and are replaced by newcomers. What will become of Sequoia National Park’s sequoia trees, which could be adversely affected by a warmer climate, and of Joshua Tree National Park’s namesake trees, which are expected to see a 90 percent reduction in their species in the park by 2100 due to higher temperatures?
America’s parks are only a microcosm of the global impact of climate change on natural resources. Last November the Chicago Tribune reported on how savannas in South Africa’s Kruger National Park are vanishing, possibly because of climate change, as “fast-increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere seem to be giving shrubs and trees a competitive advantage over grass, leaving once-open areas vulnerable to encroaching vegetation. In Canada, meanwhile, some think climate change might boost visitation to that country’s national parks as more visitors head to the parks during “the warmer ‘shoulder’ seasons of March to May and September to November,” according to a recent story in the Edmonton Journal.
Here in the United States, what role does the National Park Service have in coping with climate change?
“I think we (as consumers) have to own up to what our responsibilities are. Each one of us -- some in small ways, some in big ways -- have some contribution to the state of the world’s environment,” says Bob Krumenaker, Apostle Islands’ superintendent. “And I think in the parks, since natural resource protection is the fundamental part of our mission, it’s fairly easy for us to leap to the idea of looking at what is the impact of our activities and the activities of our visitors on this major issue that affects all of us.
“We’re not as individuals or individual parks going to be able to turn this thing around,” he adds. “But we have an opportunity to raise awareness in a big way. There are a lot of small things that we can do, the same things that homeowners can do, with compact fluorescent lights, and alternative fuel vehicles, and thermostats in buildings. And then we can do other things, like at Apostle Islands, change our boats to four-stroke engines and bio-diesel where we can. Not only are we trying to reduce our greenhouse gases, but we’re taking advantage of the opportunity to share what we’re doing with as many people as possible.”
Rick Smith, who spent three decades with the Park Service in a range of positions, including associate regional director for Natural and Cultural Resources in the NPS’s Southwest Regional Office, Santa Fe, and continues to advocate for the park system as a member of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, believes the agency needs to do a better job when it comes to running sustainable operations.
“In many of our major parks, the concessionaires, under pressure from their contractual obligations, are light years ahead of the NPS in sustainability. They recycle more, their fleets are more energy efficient, their operations are greener, and they are brutal in trying to drive down the costs related to heating, air conditioning, laundry, and other resource-consumptive activities,” says Mr. Smith. “Meanwhile, the parks do a few ‘headline things’ like driving a couple hybrids that Toyota donates and go on their way with barely a nod to sustainable operations. If the coalition does anything in the next year or so, I hope it will be to lobby for sustainability in park operations. Nothing could be much more important. I have this vision: the NPS as a leader in sustainable operations, lightening our footprint upon the land and our impact upon the planet.
“I have argued for a long time that our goal for environmental education in the parks is too limited,” he adds. “We always say that we are trying to change attitudes about the environment. No, what we should be doing is trying to change behavior about the environment. It's not enough, for instance, to say that we understand that recycling is important; you have to do it for the education to have any effect.”
When it comes to monitoring the impacts of climate change, some parks have been doing that for a good amount of time. Already more than a decade of work has been done to study the effects of global warming on Glacier National Park. “Less than one-third of the glaciers present in 1850 exist today and most remaining glaciers are mere remnants of their previous size," say park researchers. That shrinkage, they add, could lead to "the expansion of valley cedar-hemlock forests and a rise in tree-elevation. ... Large, stand-replacing forest fires could also occur."
At Everglades National Park, Superintendent Dan Kimball paints a bleak picture of what climate change could do to his park.
“Everglades National Park is very vulnerable to sea level rise,” he told a congressional subcommittee last April. “The entire park lies at or close to the level of the sea. Sixty percent of the park is at less than 3 feet above mean sea level. The highest ground in the park is 11 feet above mean sea level. The February 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change allowed the park to model the potential impact of sea level rise on its lands and waters. Using six different climate change scenarios, the IPCC report projects that sea level could rise between 7 inches to 23 inches by the end of this century. If this projection proves true, 10 percent to 50 percent of the park’s freshwater marsh would be transformed by salt water pushed landward by rising seas.
“… In summary, given its geography and topography, Everglades National Park is very vulnerable to sea level rise. Sea level rise would impact the ecosystem, the park, the park’s infrastructure, our visitors, and our greater South Florida community.”
Back at Apostle Islands, one possible impact of climate change can be seen at the lakeshore’s 17 public boat docks, which last summer were high above the lake level. In the surrounding forests there are more pests and more infestations than are normally seen. There also have been reports of moose on nearby Isle Royale National Park responding to warming temperatures by heading farther north in search of a cooler climate. Apostle Islands Superintendent Krumenaker not only is concerned about that loss, but about the ripple effects it will have on the surrounding ecosystem.
“I think some of this is gradual, and some of it is going to happen rapidly. We’re likely to see loss of species more quickly than we’ll see gain of species, particularly if it’s a charismatic species like a moose,” he says. “We’re going to be watching, we’re going to be paying attention, and we may be able to say the last moose is gone. When something appears, particularly if it’s not something you’re expecting, you often don’t realize it until several years after it appeared.
“… I’m not looking forward to this, but I expect to see sometime in the reasonably near future a scientist who is going to say in a peer-reviewed publication, ‘Yeah, the moose might disappear from Isle Royale or Voyageurs National Park in ‘x’ number of years,’” Superintendent Krumenaker adds a bit later. “And so, what happens when the moose disappear from Isle Royale? Well, the wolves probably can’t survive at Isle Royale because there won’t be enough to eat. So you’ll see all these ripple effects. The keystone species that might be affected by climate change, the changes to that species might ripple through the ecosystem, and change a lot of things that we don’t even anticipate right now.”
Cultural resources in the parks also are being impacted – unexpectedly, in some cases -- by climate change. While rising sea levels could submerge petroglyphs found along the coast near Cape Alava in Olympic National Park, at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park glacial retreat actually is exposing prehistoric artifacts – bows and arrows, spears, tools, even human remains -- left behind prior to glacial advance in the park.
The Park Service is trying to address the issue. Late last year it appointed a full-time climate change coordinator and announced plans to be more responsive to climate change.
“Probably the most important step in responding to climate change is to recognize that it is happening and to begin now to incorporate climate change thinking into regional and park planning efforts,” the Park Service said last October.