At Joshua Tree National Park, the spiky, Seuss-like trees that give the park its name are slowly disappearing. Glacier Bay National Park, which once had 150 glaciers, now has 25. Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida could be underwater by the end of the century.
As climate change alters the landscape of national parks, often in fundamental ways, the National Park Service is figuring out how to adapt. The agency’s mission–to conserve natural and cultural resources for “this and future generations”–can no longer be seen in the same way it once was.
“The previous dominant conception of that was to preserve parks as they looked at a certain time in history,” says Patrick Gonzalez, principal climate change scientist for the National Park Service. That has changed, driven in part by a 2012 report on how climate change is affecting parks.
The Park Service’s new policy, Gonzalez says, is no longer necessarily to “keep them as little pictures of the past,” but instead to manage for a time of major disruptions. Part of that means accepting that some change will happen and that it may not be possible to prevent it. It also means that if some iconic park features disappear, we may have to start appreciating something else.
“Glaciers in Glacier National Park are one of the reasons the park was established,” he says. “But you have globally unique assemblages of animals there and beautiful landscapes, even without particular glaciers.”
Many parks are changing in subtler ways. In Sequoia National Park, researchers studying a section of forest over the last 30 years have realized that trees there are now dying twice as fast. It’s not obvious to the eye, but the forest is slowly thinning out. In other parks, as climate change alters when plants come out in the spring, food is slowly becoming out of sync with the animals that eat it; species that parks were once known for may start to move.
In the low-lying Everglades, as sea level rise makes the water more saline, freshwater species may not be able to survive. In Death Valley, more extreme temperatures may drive species like alligator lizards to extinction. At Point Reyes National Seashore, like other coastal areas, ocean acidification is harming shellfish and other marine animals. More wildfires and drought are pushing other changes in the Western U.S.; extreme rain has already damaged historic structures at parks like Tumacácori in Arizona. One report detailed how 30 national monuments (among others) are at risk from sea level rise.
The Parks Service is doing what it can to adapt–trying to predict, for example, how fire patterns will change in Yosemite and how park staff can adjust fire management practices. They’re also working on education, since the most extreme climate change isn’t inevitable.
“We have science, we have technology, and we have policy,” says Gonzalez, who is part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “What we need is of course strong political will and individual action.”
The National Park Service, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, is also trying to trim its own carbon budget, cutting emissions 35% from 2008 to 2020. The biggest culprit, in most parks, is the pollution from visitors showing up in individual cars, each driving to see the same sights. But there’s very little the agency can do to influence the global politics of climate change.
The parks–and the strong emotional attachment that people feel to them–might help drive more support or small changes in sentiment. “When you see trees dying in Yellowstone National Park, or glaciers melting in Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska, or corals bleaching in Virgin Islands National Park, that is an immediate and visible call to contribute to the solution,” he says.
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