Climate change could make national parks across the United States drier and hotter than other parts of the country, a new study published Monday finds, putting many rare animals and plants at risk of extinction.
The analysis, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters by the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, examined the impacts of global warming on all 417 areas including in the national parks system — from parks and monuments to battlefields and historic sites — including territories in the Caribbean and Pacific. Under the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, scientists expect temperatures in the “most exposed” national parks to increase by as much as 9°C (16°F) by the end of the century.
“This rate of change is faster than many small mammals and plants can migrate or ‘disperse’ to more hospitable climates,” a statement from UC Berkeley accompanying the study’s release explains. Without efforts to keep temperatures from rising beyond 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures, as agreed to under the Paris climate agreement, many species could be pushed to the “brink of extinction.”
The report’s findings come amid an administration that is putting every effort into opening up public lands to fossil fuel and mining industries. It is also an administration that continues to deny the science on climate change and any action required to limit emissions.
The things that make national parks so remarkable — vast deserts, high mountains, Arctic landscapes — are also what make them so susceptible to the damaging impacts of climate change. As the study explains, the unique ecosystems contained in national parks are quite often located in extreme environments known to be more vulnerable to rising temperatures.
“Human-caused climate change is already increasing the area burned by wildfires across the western U.S., melting glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park and shifting vegetation to higher elevations in Yosemite National Park,” said Patrick Gonzalez in a statement. Gonzalez is an associate adjunct professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley and a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.
Using weather station data dating back to 1895, the study found that over the past century, average temperatures in national parks increased twice as fast (by just over 1°C) as the rest of the U.S.
Meanwhile, annual rainfall decreased by 12 percent during this time compared to just 3 percent in other regions in the country. Alaska and its national parks saw the most dramatic increases in temperature while Hawaii’s rainfall dropped the most.
And even if the world takes strong enough action to achieve the Paris climate agreement goals, Alaska will likely continue to see the most significant temperature increase, while the Virgin Islands and the southwestern U.S. will probably have the largest decrease in rainfall.
“It is important to note that even if we really do a strong mitigation of greenhouse gases, the national park system is still expected to see a 2 degree temperature change,” John Williams, a professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a statement.
“At this point,” he continued, “it is likely that the glaciers in Glacier National Park will ultimately disappear, and what is Glacier National Park if it doesn’t have glaciers anymore?”
As part of their work, the study’s authors also created specific climate model maps with more detailed information on future trends within the national parks in an effort to help plan and protect vulnerable species — and the park service is integrating this information into their climate change planning.
But despite efforts to integrate climate change science into future planning, the current federal government is working in opposition. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose agency oversees the National Parks Service (NPS), has faced calls for investigation over reported attempts to erase any mention of climate change in an NPS report (which was later restored to include the words climate change).
Zinke has repeatedly downplayed the threat of climate change and has used his position to repeatedly advocate for fossil fuel industry interests — including working to help the Trump administration open up public lands and national monuments to oil, gas, and mineral exploration.
At a conference this month, for instance, he reportedly told the oil and gas industry “the government should work for you.” Increased extraction and combustion of fossil fuels will of course accelerate climate change and intensify its myriad impacts.