A new report authored by the National Park Service confirms that climate change is happening in America’s national parks, and in some cases in rapid and concerning ways. These changes will have implications for what visitors see and experience in national parks and will require new approaches to the protection of natural and historic resources within parks.
“This report shows that climate change continues to be the most far-reaching and consequential challenge ever faced by our national parks,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “Our national parks can serve as places where we can monitor and document ecosystem change without many of the stressors that are found on other public lands.”
In a newly published article, “Climate Exposure of US National Parks in a New Era of Change,” National Park Service scientists William B. Monahan and Nicholas A. Fisichelli studied climate data of the last 10-30 years from 1901-2012 from 289 national parks. They found that temperatures are now at the high end of the range of temperatures measured since 1901. This is true across several temperature measurements, including annual average temperature, average temperature of the winter months, and average temperature of the summer months. The data also point to changes in precipitation patterns over time. These findings are consistent with previous research by the National Park Service, as well as other national and international reports including the recently released National Climate Assessment.
Grand Canyon National Park is one example of an area with significant natural resources that has recently experienced extreme high average temperatures compared to its historical patterns. Warmer temperatures and extended drought are a direct threat to endangered species, and impacts the wildlife’s source of drinking water such as seeps and springs in the canyon.
Historic sites are not immune to the impacts of climate change. At Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, increased temperatures and hydrologic changes have the potential to alter the natural and manmade resources of the park. These effects could include landscape changes that will affect access to and the structural integrity of bridges, locks, lock houses, culverts, dams and monuments. Increased occurrences of severe storms, flooding and other unpredictable weather, and changes in growing seasons will affect vegetation and the animals that depend on that vegetation.
In June, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell toured Jamestown Island and hosted a roundtable discussion with scientists and experts on the impacts of climate change on cultural resources at Virginia’s Historic Jamestowne, part of Colonial National Historical Park, and across the region.
“Beyond benefiting public health and the economy, the president’s Climate Action Plan and other administration efforts to cut carbon pollution will greatly benefit the parks, refuges, other public lands and cultural resources entrusted to the Department of the Interior on behalf of all Americans,” said Jewell. “Through sound science and collaboration, we need to examine how we can help cultural and natural resources adapt to climate change and become more resilient to its impacts.”
With an eye on the approaching National Park Service centennial in 2016, the report highlights the need to provide up-to-date scientific information to park and neighboring land managers, and for sufficient climate science to be disseminated to the general public so that parks are positioned to best protect their resources for future generations. Park managers will be increasingly challenged to develop management strategies to help park resources adapt to climate change, and how best to accomplish the task.
“Studies like this are critical to inform national park managers and visitors alike about their local climate impacts so they can take proactive steps to address climate change,” Jarvis said. “Although the National Park Service alone cannot reverse the climate changes highlighted in this report, communicating these impacts with our 275 million annual visitors can make a difference.”
The international, online scientific journal PLOS ONE, highlighted this analysis in a new collection entitled Responding to Climate Change, in which it shares recent research focused on solutions to manage resources in a changing climate. A copy of the original article is online at http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0101302.