National Parks the World Over are Preparing for Climate Change

Devils Postpile, Middle Fork of San Joaquin River. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Can Devils Postpile National Monument, through which the Middle for of the San Joaquin River flows, be successfully managed as a buffer to climate change? Kurt Repanshek photo.

Climate change is global.

No one country or hemisphere has a monopoly on calmer or stormier weather, on drier or wetter climates, on higher or lower lake, sea, and river levels. While here in the United States the National Park Service is working to confront the change, on the far side of the world another country is doing what it can to make at least one of its parks adaptable to climate change.

Just the other day word came that South African National Parks had acquired nearly 89,000 acres from De Beers Consolidated Mines for use in, basically, pushing the upper-most elevation of Namaqua National Park to 5,577 feet. By doing so, SANParks officials hope the higher elevation will enable plants and animals to migrate higher if climate change brings a drier and warmer climate to the park.

"In that regard, it will be our state-of-the-art park to accommodate the inevitability of climate change," said Paul Daphne, the agency's management executive of park operations. "There may be other national parks where this climate change accommodation could take place, but this is the first one consciously designed with that in mind."

And really, all park managers can do is strive to make their parks in some way adaptable to climate change. There doesn't seem to be any magic bullet to inoculate parks against climate change.

Here in the United States, there is one unit of the National Park System where the topography of the Sierra Nevada just might provide a leg up on confronting warmer temperatures. That unit is Devils Postpile National Monument.

Devils Postpile is nestled within a geological and biological crossroads. The western half of the monument reveals the granitic underpinnings of the High Sierra, while the eastern half reflects the volcanics of the eastern Sierra. Indeed, the "postpile" was volcanic in creation.

The monument also is relatively biologically rich, located as it is at the convergence of 3-4 bioregions (eastern, western, southern Sierra, and possibly the northern Sierra). Not only is the valley that the monument sits in a migratory corridor for deer, but it also sees a fair amount of migratory birds and is a mixing point for eastern and western Sierra vegetation such as Red fir, sagebrush, and Great Basin juniper.

Within Devils Postpile's nearly 800 acres, which have an elevational range of 1,000 feet, there are roughly 400 plant species and 100 bird species. There's also a relatively high percentage (8.5%) of wetlands in the monument.

But what makes the monument -- most of which is part of the Ansel Adams Wilderness and which is cut by the John Muir and Pacific Crest trails -- potentially perfect for adapting to or serving as a buffer to climate change is that it is nestled in a climatologically unique area in the Sierra Nevada.

Just south of Yosemite National Park and northeast of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, the monument sits at an elevation of just over 7,500 feet, while the surrounding mountains climb above 11,000 feet. In effect, the monument is a cold sink, one that in winter often is colder than Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows, which stands 1,000+ feet higher.

In light of this biological diversity and the monument's cold-sink setting, Devils Postpile Superintendent Deanna Dulen is working to develop a General Management Plan (GMP) designed to, in effect, turn the monument into a refugium of sorts from climate change. Working with officials from the Inyo National Forest, which surrounds the monument, Superintendent Dulen hopes to develop a GMP for not just the monument's 800 acres but also a considerable swath of the surrounding national forest that shares the canyon containing the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River.

"If I'm going to preserve the biodiversity of Devils Postpile, I have to look at this whole valley," she told me as we gazed out upon the rumpled landscape from Minaret Vista just northeast of the monument.

Superintendent Dulen believes that by protecting the monument as a refugium it will be able to serve in the years ahead as a vital link for species migration as well as a seed bank.

One of the reasons, in addition to the cold-sink nature of the monument's setting, that Superintendent Dulen and climate scientists with the Forest Service believe she might be able to succeed is that Devils Postpile covers just 798 acres, which makes it much more manageable than parks that span hundreds of thousands or millions of acres.

Plus, long-range weather predictions call for only about 10 percent less precipitation to fall on the monument and only slightly warmer temperatures.

Still, there are tough issues that need to be confronted. The Mammoth Ski Area is just east of Devils Postpile and its snowmaking system gulps down a lot of water. How might pumping groundwater for that system affect the groundwater that flows into Devils Postpile and nourishes its vegetation and wildlife? What about the town of Mammoth and its future water needs?

"With climate change there's going to be a lot of pressure to make more snow," the superintendent said. "Water is going to be really key to whatever habitat you have and how you react to climate change."

Too, if the regional climate overall warms, how might that affect the aspects of Devils Postpile's cold sink nature?

With Devils Postpile marking its centennial in 2011, Superintendent Dulen hopes to have a draft of her GMP ready for public review by then. Hopefully, by then she and other researchers will be able to answer some of the questions that currently exist and come up with a solid road map for creating a buffer to climate change.