Climate Change in National Parks

It’s no secret that climate change is taking a toll on our wildlife and their habitats. Some of the reported effects include declining bird population, oceans warming, droughts, and many more. Often climate change is hard to comphend if you don’t see it for yourself or if you don’t understand the magnitude. These damaging effects are a result of global warming, due to rising levels of greenhouse gases—often attributed to human impact. As hikers, naturalists or just people who love the outdoors these issues are closely hovering above us. Nature is our sustenance and these public lands are meant to last for future generations. By noticing the effects of climate change, it influences people to make conscious decisions that help keep our parks healthy. Ideally, as one who loves nature, we should follow the leave no trace principle, spread awareness, and protect these rare places. Below are some national parks currently experiencing shifts in their ecological and environmental patterns.

Joshua Tree National Park

A desert tortoise looking for shade.

A desert tortoise looking for shade. Image:

Can you imagine Joshua Tree National Park drier than it already is? The state-wide drought happening in California is causing the park’s water levels to drop dramatically, and officials are worried about wildfires in those conditions. Wildfires can easily spread in extremely dry areas and destroy wildlife and plants. Scientist say, the average temperatures in the park are increasing, and Joshua trees are drying out in some parts. The young trees normally seen have largely disappear in some areas, and the left over mature trees are gradually dying out. If global temperatures continue to rise as predicted, Joshua trees could eventually vanish from a range of 90 percent by the end of the century. Other types of trees and shrubs are being effected at lower elevations such as California junipers and pinyon pines. Lizards and insects are also feeling the impact; some are disappearing in areas where they were abundant, and the population of birds is shifting to higher elevations as the climate grows hotter and drier. Park researchers have found a good amount of dead desert tortoises during the drought.

Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountain' s Cades Cove [Image:]

Great Smoky Mountain’ s Cades Cove [Image:]

The Great Smoky Mountains has one of the richest ecosystems in the world. It’s home to boreal forests as well as the largest block of virgin red spruce on Earth. According to a National Park Conservation Association study, temperatures in the region have been on the rise since the 1970s, causing the ski season to shorten and become less predictable. Also with warming temperatures famous species like the Fraser fir trees, typical in high elevation could eventually disappear. These dire conditions could be detrimental for red squirrels, southern red-back voles, and northern flying squirrels. Climate change means acid rain and invasive species which could make it difficult for trees to flourish. Regional forests are already being wiped out. Trout on the southern edge will also feel the impact, as rivers and streams warm. Even a small increase of 2 or 3 degrees could wipe out about 37 percent of trout in the area. In 1988, a major drought led to high trout mortality and such low reproductive rates. The Southern Appalachian forest has been struggling for decades with the stress of acid rain, and there is evidence the mix of climate change and pollution can worsen the situation.

Denali National Park

Hidden Creek Glacier. Top 1916 and bottom 2004. [Image Credit: NPS]

Hidden Creek Glacier: 1916 (top) and 2004 (bottom). [Image Credit: NPS]

Glaciers in Denali National Park are thinning and retreating at a rapid rate, reducing the area of ice for wildlife and coastal communities. As the arctic tundra’s permafrost continues deplete, changes in vegetation will force wildlife to move further north in search of food, The Denali Repeat Photography Project, which started in 2005, shows the Denali is going through massive changes in vegetation, water bodies and glaciers. The project has over 200 photo pairs across the park, providing background info, and the scope of changing patterns over time. The photos reveal obvious changes to the park’s ecosystems, a result of a warming planet and related causes. Some photos document changes including the invasion of open wetland by woody vegetation, the spreading of vegetation in open floodplains and terraces, shrinking ponds, receding glaciers, and the abundance of spruce in treeless areas. Though changes to the landscape may appear to be part of the natural cycle, the study points to an overall shift. Park personnel are also continually measuring glacial retreat and using surveying techniques.

Everglades National Park

Florida Panther, only 30 to 50 individuals survive today. []

Florida Panther, only 30 to 50 individuals survive today. []

In recent years the Everglades has drawn much attention, as it continues to get drained and encroached. It’s half the size it was a century ago, and only a fifth of the Everglades ecosystem is under the national park protection. The Everglades is included in the UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger. It’s home to endangered plants and animals, including the manatee and panther. According to the LA Times, one culprit causing havoc for 60 years is the sugar industry. The sugar industry uses up water resources, allows fertilizer runoff and pollution from sugar cane, and other agricultural operations that further reduce water quality and alter the ecosystem. Population in southern Florida is growing and housing demands have increased, further adding stress on water supplies. This fragile wetland habitat is also under threat from fracking on nearby public lands. “It is becoming more clear that regulating fracking still risks accidental spills, water contamination, methane leaks, earthquakes and habitat destruction. The only way to negate these risks is to ban fracking entirely,” says the non-profit organization Food and Water Watch. It’s no surprise President Obama paid a visit on Earth Day to call for fresh water restoration, and to push back on encroaching saltwater from rising seas which is altering the ecosystems. According to a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences, the Florida Keys and other parts of the state are among the nation’s most vulnerable areas for endangered wildlife.


For those saying let’s leave it to government, not so fast. A Center for American Progress study shows that during the first 100 days of 2015, newly elected congress and senate members tried to implement an anti-environmental agenda by proposing regressive laws. Some of our representatives continue to vote for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, block action to reduce carbon pollution and are sending proposals to sell America’s public lands. When Earth Day comes around the environment is a top concern—but let’s not drop the case and forget there’s still work to be done. For more info about climate change effects in national parks, visit the National Park Conservation Association.



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