Climate change is seriously threatening America’s national parks.
We could actually lose Yosemite, Joshua Tree, the Everglades and hundreds of the iconic protected areas that inspire awe and create treasured memories.
A 2018 study published in “Environmental Research Letters” found that the 417 protected areas in the U.S. national parks system warmed an average of one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) between 1885 and 2010. That’s twice the average rate of temperature increase in the United States. Yearly precipitation in the 85 million acres of parks has declined 12% over the same period — 9% more than the 3% national average.
The report’s lead author, Patrick Gonzalez, a climate scientist at the University of California, Berkeley said, “National parks aren’t a random sample — they are remarkable places and many happen to be in extreme environments…many are in places that are inherently more exposed to human-caused climate change.”
Deterioration brought on by climate change threatens the very existence of the things parks were created to protect. For example, Glacier Bay and Grand Teton National Parks are at risk of losing their glaciers. Joshua Tree National Park could lose its Joshua trees.
John Williams, a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, notes that even if greenhouse gases are greatly reduced, national parks can still expect to see a two degree temperature increase. This change would result in the loss of Glacier National Park’s glaciers.
The abundant white pine and spruce that used to cover Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park have been destroyed by bark beetles that have killed 834 million trees across the state. For almost four weeks last summer, Yosemite faced an unprecedented closure as the Ferguson Fire stalked its borders and enveloped the park in smoke.
All over America, wildfires are threatening national parks.
All over America, wildfires are threatening national parks. In 2016 a cluster of fires covered over 11,000 acres of Great Smoky Mountains National Park for over two weeks. The conditions caused by the regions prolonged drought and high winds allowed the fire to spread into the surrounding communities of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. This disaster killed 14 people, injured 150 and destroyed more than 1,600 buildings.
According to the aforementioned study, temperatures in New England parks such as Maine’s Acadia National Park and the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area will increase about eight to nine degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Additionally, precipitation could increase up to 14%. These changes would be massively disruptive to the unique ecosystems in these areas.
The National Park Service describes many of the ways climate change is already affecting its parks. In places like the Great Smoky Mountains, average summer visibility has already decreased as much as 80% since the 1950’s.
The loss of ice, snowpack and water due to global warming and weather pattern changes has endangered wildlife and contributed to shifts in spring flood cycles. Inland parks may see more frequent downpours and droughts while coastal parks may experience stronger storms and flooding.
Increasing water temperatures threaten native fish populations. And rising sea levels will cause parks with lower elevations like the Everglades and Dry Tortugas to be flooded, pushing out wildlife that cannot survive in saltwater.
We are at a very precarious time regarding the issue of climate change. The decisions we make now are critical to the future of our national parks and planet as a whole. However, we still have time to turn things around.
Gonzalez also stated in his report that if we reduced greenhouse emissions to the levels specified in the Paris Agreement, we could decrease the rate of heating in national parks by one half to two thirds of the highest emissions scenarios by the end of the century.
Everything we do now to curb greenhouse emissions and protect natural environments will make an impact and help preserve our breathtaking national parks for future generations. Help Joshua Tree keep its Joshua trees by supporting efforts to more rapidly transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
For more ways to protect the parks you love, check out the National Park Foundation website.
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