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Imagine the Impacts of Climate Change on the National Park System

Waterless Yosemite Fall, Kurt Repanshek photo

Every fall Yosemite Fall goes dry due to a lack of snowmelt. Could climate change leave the iconic waterfall waterless for longer and longer periods? Kurt Repanshek photo.

Imagine Yosemite National Park without Yosemite Fall. Or Glacier National Park without glaciers. Or Old Faithful becoming less faithful.

These are just some of the impacts a changing climate could bring to bear on our National Park System. True, not all the impacts will be easily visible or take root overnight. Some perhaps not in the next 50 years. But as the globe continues to warm, the impacts likely will be more and more widespread across the system.

Already there are predictions that changes in precipitation could influence the groundwater that helps fuel Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. In the last decade alone drought has been blamed for slowing Old Faithful's eruptions from every 71 minutes to 91 minutes.

Already Yosemite Fall, as the accompanying photo (taken October 8) shows, goes dry in the fall. Shorter winters and less snowfall could cause the Yosemite Valley's iconic falls to endure longer and longer dry spells. Meanwhile, in Montana, Glacier National Park's rivers of ice, as many have heard, are now predicted to be gone by 2030 at the latest due to warming temperatures.

Melting of ice at the two poles is expected to raise sea levels, something that would inundate places such as Biscayne National Park, of which 95 percent already is under water, and Dry Tortugas National Park. Denali National Park and Preserve also could see its glaciers shrink drastically, if not completely, and its permafrost likely will come out of its deep chill.

Exactly how the National Park Service responds to these threats remains to be seen, though agency officials are trying to sort it all out. Contributing suggestions to the agency's own research and decision-making is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which back in June finalized its Preliminary Review of Adaptation Options for Climate-sensitive Ecosystems and Resources. Chapter 4 of that hefty document (attached below) applies specifically to national parks. Among its suggestions is the following:

Climate has fundamentally defined national parks. Climate change is redefining these parks and will continue to do so. Rather than simply adding and ranking the importance of climate change against a host of pressing issues, managers are wise to begin to include climate change considerations into all activities and plans. There are a number of short-term approaches that may help to provide resilience over the next few decades. These include reducing habitat fragmentation and loss, invasive species, and pollution; protecting important ecosystem and physical features; restoring damaged systems and natural processes (recognizing that some restoration may not provide protection of dynamic systems); and reducing the risks of catastrophic loss through bet-hedging strategies such as establishing refugia, relocating valued species, replicating populations and habitats, and maintaining representative examples of populations and species. Short-term adaptation may involve prioritizing resources and determining which parks should receive immediate attention, while recognizing that the physical and biological changes that will accompany warming trends and increasing occurrences of extreme events will affect every one of the 270 natural national parks in the coming century.

Of course, before the Park Service can fully tackle climate change, it has to understand exactly what exists on its 84-million-acre landscape and how changing climate could impact those resources. "Protecting natural resources and processes in the near term begins with the need to first identify what is at risk," reads a section of the EPA report. "The next steps are to define the baselines that constitute 'impaired' in a changing world, decide the appropriate scales at which to manage the processes and resources, and set measurable targets of protection."

Across the national parks more than a few managers already are at work trying to sort through these issues. The Traveler will bring you examples of these efforts in the months ahead.

Now, the National Park Service doesn't need to approach this problem-solving in a vacuum, as the United States certainly is not alone in grappling with climate change. Great Britain has quite an extensive national park system that also is being confronted by climate change. Some believe it must undergo extensive change to cope with changing climate.

Here are some snippets from an article that The Observer of London ran last December:

Britain's National parks - enjoyed by 100 million visitors a year - must undergo a conservation revolution if they are to meet the challenges of climate change and the introduction of new farming practices.

This is the stark warning of leading environmentalist Adrian Phillips, who has warned the National Parks Societies that our most precious landscapes will have to adapt in the near future. Phillips wants planners to encourage small renewable energy projects, such as wind turbines, hydroelectric schemes and solar water heaters. He warned that new planning laws will have to be introduced to make new buildings carbon-neutral and the parks entirely so.

The government also seems to have woken up to the conservation value of national parks. Despite deep cuts in the government budget planned in the medium term, Rural Affairs Minister Jonathan Shaw announced last week that funding for national parks would increase by 10 per cent over the next three years, marginally above inflation.

A showcase for how Britain's national parks could develop in the future already exists in Cumbria. Ennerdale runs east to west about 10 miles from the coast. In 2000 the National Trust and the Forestry Commission agreed to try a new method of management in a valley degraded by inappropriate conifer plantations.

The idea was to allow natural processes a much greater say in how the valley changed. Two years later the third major landholder in the area, United Utilities, joined the project. The valley wasn't abandoned, but managed at a lower level of intensity. Sheep are being replaced by fewer, larger herbivores such as Black Galloway cattle and red deer. Wardens monitor the cattle via satellite to track their movements but they calve alone and are allowed to roam freely.

(Richard) Leafe (the chief executive of the Lake District National Park) argued that building this 'ecological resilience' is the idea to reinvigorate national parks not just naturally, but socially too: 'This process takes farmers, and that means communities, shops and post offices and all those things. Otherwise we'll end up with a ghetto where only the rich live and the people who look after the place and make it thrive travel in great distances by car to do it.'

Of course, Great Britain's national parks are managed a bit differently than those in the United States, as often they encompass whole towns and farms. Still, perhaps the two countries' park managers could benefit by comparing notes on how to cope with climate change.

Climate change will surely exert a wide array of pressures on the National Park System. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how those impacts are manifested and how the National Park Service responds.

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Melting of ice at the two poles is expected to raise sea levels

Since the sea ice at the North Pole is floating on the sea, its melting will not cause sea levels to rise. Greenland's ice is often cited, but it would take several millennia for all Greenland's 100,000 year old ice sheets to melt completely. (Interestingly, the second IPCC climate report showed Greenland had been cooling rather than warming in recent decades.)

As for Alaska's glaciers: "Glaciers are subject to surges in their rate of movement with consequent melting when they reach lower altitudes and/or the sea. The contributors to Annals of Glaciology, Volume 36 (2003) discussed this phenomenon extensively and it appears that slow advance and rapid retreat have persisted throughout the mid to late Holocene in nearly all of Alaska's glaciers. Historical reports of surge occurrences in Iceland's glaciers go back several centuries. Thus rapid retreat can have several other causes than CO2 increase in the atmosphere."

Please also note that average long-term average sea levels over the last half billion years has been much higher than today.

Climate predictions should be taken as what they are: predictions, not gospel. We can't even predict the weather ten days from now let alone ten years, ten decades, or ten centuries.

The IPCC states that climate change is happening and it's 90% likely cause by humans. The IPCC also states there's probably nothing that we can do to stop it. What's still poorly understood are the effects of climate change. There seems to be a tendency to blame everything on human-caused climate change, and it seems to be used as a fear tactic.

If the NPS was serious about climate change and CO2 reductions, it should limit all activities in national parks that generate C02. No more leaf blowers at Grant Grove. No more lawn mowing in Zion. No more road paving using heavy machinery. No more cars. To do less is pure hypocrisy.

Regarding Greenland's melting ice, in late August I was fortunate enough to attend a field workshop on climate change and the impacts to whitebark pine forests. One of the participants was Dr. Steve Running, a terrestrial ecologist from the University of Montana. As I noted last month in a post on that topic, Dr. Running's primary research interest lies within climatology. A chapter lead author for the 4th Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Dr. Running has more than a passing understanding of what's happening to the Earth's climate.

Here's a snippet from an interview I conducted with him:

“I was at a seminar only about two months ago with one of the premier Greenland ice scientists, and he says, ‘You know what? The things we thought we understood five years ago we’re being taught are wrong. The speed that we thought this system could transition, it’s turning out it can transition three times faster than we thought was possible.'

"We can’t kid ourselves that if humanity just went on its merry way that we couldn’t really push this planet to someplace almost uninhabitable. We don’t really know completely how the stability of the Earth system components are going to re-equilibrate with this huge forcing of carbon that is going from the ground into the atmosphere in 100 years. I like to tell people that it took 100 million years to put it in there -- the coal, oil and gas -- and we’re digging it all back up in 100 years and taking it all back out."

Frank C., I think there's a similar report to yours (loose in facts) that was put out sometime ago by Exxon...and like oil companies. I don't put much credence in oil company research teams, especially when they exploit the motto:Drill baby drill! This very idea that we're playing Russian roulette with our global environment, I can only foresee terrible and dire consequences for are stupidity...especially what has transcended down from this present lame and duck administration. Being a backpacker throughout the Sierra Mountains for the past 30 years, I can honestly say there has been some abrupt and subtle changes in the terrestrial environment surrounding Yosemite National Park. The famed plant ecologist and naturalist ranger from Yosemite, Carl Sharsmith once told me (some 20 years ago, to paraphrase) I no longer hear the chorus of song birds at different intervals of the I did so many, many years ago. And, today I stretch my ears just to hear a simple warbler sad! I guess this wouldn't rile the oil industry one bit, despite all the effects of global warming on our floral and fauna in our National Parks. What lies ahead for the next generation in this country...I'm not sure. Perhaps and most likely a wilted and dying natural heritage exploited for greed, rape and pillage. This should be one of the most critical topics to be pressing on Kurt's blog...not meaningless drivel over hand guns in the National Parks.

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