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No Picnic for Our Parks: How Climate Change Could Impact National Parks and the Species they Protect

From retreating glaciers in Alaska to severe drought in the Southwest, climate change is set to dramatically alter our national parks. Here are 10 CSC and NCCWSC projects that provide a snapshot of our work in national parks.

Map of the US with images showing different parks around the country where the CASCs do work
No Picnic for Parks: How Climate Change Could Impact National Parks

Our national parks play a critical role in protecting wildlife and ecosystems in an ever evolving landscape. Climate change, however, is one threat that can’t be stopped by park boundaries. National Park Service (NPS) Director Jonathan Jarvis has called climate change “the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks that we have ever experienced”. From retreating glaciers in Alaska to severe drought in the Southwest, climate change is set to dramatically alter our national parks, preserves, and other protected areas.

August 25, 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, formed in 1916 to oversee the expansion of what was at the time a small network of parks and monuments. The network has since grown to include over 400 protected areas.

Continuing to protect these parks into the future requires an understanding of how climate change has and will impact parks. Tasked with identifying the effects of climate change on wildlife and ecosystems, the Department of the Interior Climate Science Centers (CSCs), managed by the USGS National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center (NCCWSC), have conducted  research projects that inform this critical issue. These projects have been geared towards helping park managers adapt to climate change by providing vital information on the implications of climate change for parks.

To celebrate the NPS centennial, we’ve highlighted 10 CSC and NCCWSC projects that provide a snapshot of our work in national parks:

Acadia National Park, Maine

Located on Maine’s rugged coast, Acadia has miles of rocky shoreline, vast networks of streams, lakes, and wetlands, and is home to the tallest mountain on the North Atlantic seaboard. With 338 known bird species, it’s also a bird-watcher’s paradise. Unfortunately, the threats of climate change to Acadia are numerous, and include sea-level rise, heightened storm surge, heavier rainfall, and invasive species. To help park staff prepare for and adapt to climate change, researchers with the Northeast CSC are working to identify a range of possible climate change scenarios that could affect the park within the next 25 years. Such scenario planning enables managers to adapt to climate change in the face of uncertainty, by considering multiple plausible futures for the park. Learn more >>  

 

Cape Lookout National Seashore, North Carolina

The barrier islands of Cape Lookout National Seashore entice visitors with remote beaches, wild horses, and cultural attractions such as the Cape Lookout Lighthouse (completed in 1859) and the historic buildings of Portsmouth Village (established in 1753). Climate change will affect Cape Lookout beyond just warming temperatures and changing precipitation. More frequent heat waves, drought, floods, and a longer frost-free season are all expected. Sea-level rise also poses a big threat to these low-lying islands. Focusing on the park’s cultural resources, researchers with the Southeast CSC are developing a strategy for assessing the vulnerability of cultural resources to climate change to help guide cultural resource decision-makers at Cape Lookout and across the country. Learn more >>  

 

Everglades National Park, Florida

Everglades National Park is a renowned wetland ecosystem that provides critical habitat for 30 threatened and endangered species, such as Florida’s iconic manatee and the elusive Florida panther. This ecosystem is recognized worldwide for its importance—it is designated as a World Heritage Site and a Wetland of International Importance. As part of a project exploring the potential effects of climate change on Florida’s ecosystems and biodiversity, researchers with NCCWSC examined how sea-level rise has impacted Everglades National Park and may continue to impact the park in the future. Findings show that sea-level rise not only increases water levels, but it also increases water salinity, which could spell change for the entire ecosystem. Learn more >> 

 

Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Remote Dry Tortugas National Park, located 70 miles west of Key West, is mostly comprised of open water, with the exception of 7 small islands. The park is home to a number of threatened and endangered species, including 5 species of sea turtle. In fact, the park is the most active sea turtle nesting site in the Florida Keys. The park’s sea turtles were the focus of a project spearheaded by researchers with the Southeast CSC, in which the movements of breeding green sea turtles were tracked. Green turtles can be highly migratory, and understanding their movements and habitat use is a priority for ongoing conservation efforts for this species, which is endangered in Florida. This work is part of a larger project assessing the vulnerability of sea turtle nesting grounds to climate change. Learn more >>  

 

Badlands National Park, South Dakota & Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, North Dakota

In the face of climate change, the future of the northern Great Plains is uncertain. Two protected areas in this region, Badlands National Park (South Dakota) and Knife River Indian Villages National Historical Site (North Dakota), are the focus of a project seeking to clarify what the future may look like for the Northern Plains. Researchers from the North Central CSC are drawing on global climate models to identify a range of plausible future climate scenarios for the region. A series of  workshops will then help managers explore different management options under each scenario, enabling them to be proactive in the face of uncertainty. As a final step, simulation modeling will be used to help managers answer the "what if" questions surrounding how certain actions might affect resources, under the different scenarios.  Learn more >>  

 

Olympic National Park, Mount Rainier National Park, & Cascades National Park, Washington

The alpine landscapes of Olympic, Mount Rainier, and North Cascades national parks offer a diverse range of ecosystems, from lowland forests to montane wetlands—the latter of which are thought to be among the most sensitive ecosystems to climate change. To better understand the effects of climate change on the region’s biologically rich wetlands, researchers from the Northwest CSC monitored changes in the water level and extent of wetlands in the three parks and forecasted their future hydrologic conditions. Results show that montane wetlands will become increasingly dry due to factors such as reduced snowpack and longer summer droughts. Amphibians, such as the Cascades frog, rely on wetlands for breeding and are at risk of local extinction due to the loss of suitable wetland habitat. Learn more >> 

 

Kings Canyon National Park, Sequoia National Park, & Yosemite National Park, California

Research shows that climate change is already increasing the frequency and severity of drought. To help guide resource managers engaged in climate adaptation efforts, researchers with the Southwest CSC, along with collaborators, are examining whether a key forest management tool - prescribed fire - can increase forest resistance to severe drought in three California parks: Kings Canyon, Sequoia, and Yosemite. So far, results have shown that when some trees are removed by prescribed fire, the remaining trees are more likely to survive during future drought, possibly because they face less competition for water. This information will help managers better understand how they can take action to lessen the impacts of drought and improve the health of forests. Learn more >>  

 

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, Hawai'i

As its name implies, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park is home to two active volcanoes: Kīlauea and Mauna Loa. From sea to summit, the park protects a wide diversity of species and ecosystems, including 23 species of endangered vascular plants and 15 species of endangered trees. Unfortunately, the effects of climate change are already being felt across the Hawaiian Islands, and understanding how climate change may impact the park’s plants is vital for their long-term survival. Researchers with the Pacific Islands CSC are identifying how plant distributions within the park may shift as the climate changes. This information will help park managers determine how management strategies may need to change in order to remain effective in light of these new species distributions. Learn more >>  

 

Haleakalā National Park & Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, Hawai'i

High elevation plant communities in Hawai’i are expected to be altered by climate change, as conditions become hotter and drier and as invasive species move upslope. Researchers supported by the Pacific Islands CSC are working to characterize the subalpine vegetation communities found in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park and Haleakalā National Park. Subalpine vegetation occurs in a transition zone between dense forest and higher elevation treeless tundra. Researchers will first identify how plants respond to environmental factors such as precipitation and elevation. This information will then be used to help predict future vegetation changes that may occur in these subalpine communities, and to identify how to best protect them against non-native plant invasions that may increase as temperatures warm. Learn more >> 

 

Denali, Gates of the Arctic, and Katmai National Park & Preserve, Alaska

Alaska’s national parks draw millions of visitors each year, primarily during the warmer summer months. As temperatures in the state rise due to climate change, it’s possible that the tourist season could expand in length. Researchers with several CSCs (Alaska, Northwest, Southwest, and Pacific Islands) helped examine the potential effects of climate change on visitor use in three Alaskan parks: Denali, Gates of the Arctic, and Katmai. Researchers found a strong relationship between temperature and visitor use at all three parks, suggesting that as temperatures warm the peak tourist season could expand by as much as two months. This information will help park managers and the tourism industry anticipate and plan for future management needs. Learn more >>