National Parks Hit Hardest by Climate Change, Study Finds

The South Fork of the Two Medicine River flows toward the plains from the Badger-Two Medicine area on the Rocky Mountain Front near Glacier National Park. (David Reese/CNS)

(CN) – The 417 parks that comprise the National Park system are particularly susceptible to the harmful effects of climate change, according to a study published Monday.

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and University of Wisconsin-Madison performed a first of its kind analysis that found average temperatures in national parks increased at twice the rate of the rest of the nation while rainfall totals have decreased more than other areas of the country.

“Human-caused climate change is already increasing the area burned by wildfires across the western U.S., melting glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park and shifting vegetation to higher elevations in Yosemite National Park,” said Patrick Gonzales, a professor at UC Berkeley. “The good news is that, if we reduce our emissions from cars, power plants, deforestation, and other human activities and meet the Paris Agreement goal, we can keep the temperature increase in national parks to one-third of what it would be without any emissions reduction.”

The unique geography that makes the natural places special also makes them more vulnerable to a changing climate.

Many parks are situated in the high desert, in sensitive alpine environments or in the Arctic region of Alaska – all areas hit hard by rising temperatures.

“National parks aren’t a random sample – they are remarkable places and many happen to be in extreme environments,” Gonzalez said. “Many are in places that are inherently more exposed to human-caused climate change.”

Researchers used the myriad weather stations operating in most of the parks in the system, some of which have been collecting temperature and rainfall data since 1895. Using this data, researchers compared century-long trends with similar readings across the United States.

They found temperatures in national parks have risen by an average of 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit over the last century, roughly double the national increase.

Alaska bears the most significant brunt of rising temperatures, while the national parks in Hawaii witnessed the most dramatic reduction in rainfall.

In late June and swollen with snowmelt, Yosemite Falls plunges a total of 2,425 feet to the valley floor. (Bridget Clerkin)

The team also modeled likely scenarios for the national parks. The worst predicts a rise in temperature of as much as 12.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Researchers hope the National Park Service can use the data and the modeling to prepare for the worst while seeking to soften the harm to the protected ecosystems and historical sites.

“The park service is already integrating this climate change information into their planning and resource management,” said Fuyao Wang, a research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Researchers note that even if global populations drastically curtail greenhouse gas emissions, a 3.6-degree rise is likely.

“At this point, it is likely that the glaciers in Glacier National Park will ultimately disappear, and what is Glacier National Park if it doesn’t have glaciers anymore?” said John Williams, a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “So I think this adds weight to the importance of reducing our future levels of climate change and also extends the National Park Service mission to both adapt to these changes and educate all of us about these changes.”

 

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