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Watching Climate Change Across the National Park System


Writer/photographer Michael Lanza is taking his family on a trek through the National Park System to show his young children how climate change might alter the parks' landscapes. Here his young daughter, Alex, enjoys the view from Grandview Point in Grand Canyon National Park. Photo by Michael Lanza.

Editor's note: Climate change. It's a controversial topic. Is it naturally occurring? Are humans driving it with their greenhouse gas emissions? Whichever answer you choose, climate change can be seen in changing storm patterns, more vigorous storms, droughts, and heat waves. Across the National Park System many changes are expected from climate change, from more wildfires and vanishing glaciers to invasions of non-native species and flight of long-term residents. Writer/photographer Michael Lanza, concerned that today's park landscapes will change significantly by the time his young kids are his age, has been touring the park system with his family to show his children what they might miss later in life. Here's an overview of his travels, which will result in a book due out next year.

I paused and stared at the narrow trail ahead of us, plastered in ice and clinging to the face of a cliff with a sheer drop-off of several hundred feet. Then I looked down at my 7-year-old daughter, Alex. Four feet tall and 50 pounds, she innocently trusted that her dad, holding her hand tightly, would guide her safely across that scary traverse—and the next, and the next, and so on for a thousand vertical feet on our descent of the steep and wildly exposed Grandview Trail into the Grand Canyon.

It seemed appropriate that my family’s year-long odyssey of national park adventures began in the Grand Canyon, walking amid a geologic record dating halfway back to the Earth’s very beginning.

We did, of course, get safely through that four-day, 29-mile hike last March. It was the first of 11 wilderness adventures that my wife, Penny, and I are taking with our kids—Nate, who turned 10 in September, and Alex—in national parks that are likely to be very different places by the time my kids are my age. We’re taking these trips for a book I’m writing about our experiences, and to tell the story about how climate change will radically overhaul our treasured wild lands in years to come.

Titled Before They’re Gone, it will be published in spring 2012 by Beacon Press. In the Grand Canyon, for instance, one challenge facing backpackers has always been the scarcity of water. We went there last spring, when snow was melting and springs and creeks that are dry much of the year were flowing; still, we had to carry enough water to get us through the trip’s final 24 hours. I left our last reliable spring with 13 liters—27.5 pounds—of water in my pack. In the much hotter and drier desert Southwest predicted by climate experts, water will become ever scarcer, forcing backpackers to carry heavier loads of water. My kids may find it impossible to repeat our trip someday with young kids of their own.

In early summer, we hiked to the world-famous waterfalls of Yosemite Valley, walking in their showers of mist. Scientists say those waterfalls, within just a couple of decades, will diminish and dry up weeks and months earlier in the year than they do now.

In July, we sea kayaked for five days in Alaska’s Glacier Bay, where the tidewater glaciers that calve bus-sized blocks of ice into the sea have retreated farther than any other glaciers on Earth.

In August, we backpacked through the amazing wildflower meadows of Mount Rainier, where catastrophic “Pineapple Express” storms have triggered record floods in recent years and are expected to become more common. A few days later, we explored tide pools filled with colorful starfish and sea anemone on the wild Olympic coast, at least one-third of which is threatened by rising sea level.

We saw a mountain goat up close and the largest remaining icefields of Glacier National Park, one of America’s iconic mountain landscapes. The last of its 7,000-year-old glaciers are projected to melt into the dirt within about a decade—when my kids are just 19 and 17.

In September, we caught the golden explosion of aspen foliage in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain, an experience threatened by various climate-related crises decimating trees of all kinds across the West. We also scrambled and rock climbed in November on the granite towers of Joshua Tree National Park, doomed to lose its namesake tree.

Still to come: cross-country skiing this month in Yellowstone, long one of the nation’s iceboxes, where winter is, incredibly, shrinking; and sea kayaking among alligators and great ibises in Florida’s Everglades. One of the world’s great biodiversity hot spots, Everglades is the U.S. national park arguably most threatened by climate change: Most of it would be inundated by an ocean rise of 23 inches—in the mid-range of projections of worldwide sea rise.

Our kids both had experience wilderness backpacking, paddling rivers, rock climbing, and ski touring with us, so we felt confident that we could safely pull off these trips. Still, Penny and I knew none of them would be easy—even for many adults. From occasional nine- and 10-mile days on the trail to sea kayaking in deadly cold waters, our adventures involved some hardships and risks.

So far, our year of adventure has been magical. Our experience reminds me of the words of John Muir, who said, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” I think his implied meaning was that you don’t know what you will receive until you go seeking it.

That’s exactly what I believe we have found.

Michael Lanza is Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine. See his stories and photos of his adventure travels at The BigOutside. Reach him at [email protected], and follow and

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The wheels came off the "global climate change" more than a year ago. Let's move on to the really important areas that need our concern - such as just where to find the money to manage all the national park land added during the past two decades, what to do with all the waste materials our society generates, a realistic policy on DDT, etc.

The comment above is valid except the part about the wheels falling off Climate Change. We have to address all of this and it will take many people with many different focuses to do what needs to be done, so let's no attack one persons vocation if it helps the overall dilemma.

"Whichever answer you choose, climate change can be seen in changing storm patterns, more vigorous storms, droughts, and heat waves."

Many of these claims lack solid scientific evidence outside IPCC publications. (The IPCC also used a non-peer reviewed study from the WWF that claimed Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2035 which was later debunked.)

It's interesting that an editor of Backpacker Magazine, a publication that advertises new SUVs, would travel around the country burning fossil fuel to write articles about how the burning of fossil fuel is going to ruin national parks.


You're wrong. See the National Academy of Sciences report on climate change, for one of many.

I expect criticisms for the carbon dioxide emissions caused by the travel incurred in writing this book, largely from deniers of climate change. They cynically try to discredit anyone warning of the consequences of our impacts on climate instead of trying to make an intelligent and honest argument against the science.
Like many people, I have a job that involves some travel. It did even before I began writing this book. Unlike many people, however, I also work at home rather than commuting to an office. Including all work-related travel, I put about ten thousand miles a year on my car and take about three plane trips a year. I bike or walk most local errands year-round, so I make no more than four car trips in a typical week. I cut my lawn with a non-motorized push mower, play the roll of electricity cop turning off lights in my home, and we keep our thermostat at sixty-eight during the day in heating season. We turn on the air conditioning two or three evenings a summer, when the daytime high has topped 100 degrees; instead of running the A/C, I open all the windows at night and close them and the blinds on hot summer days, keeping the house cool without using electricity. My wife commutes to her job in a hybrid car. We support political candidates and organizations that advocate for progressive policies on energy consumption and climate change.
In these ways and others, I try to follow a lifestyle that minimizes energy consumption. Yet, like nearly all Americans, my family consumes far more energy per capita than the people of any other country because of the nature of our lifestyles, communities, and energy and transportation systems.
Criticizing my book for its carbon footprint ignores reality. It basically suggests that the solution to climate change is for people to stop commuting or getting on planes for work (or travel). That is as helpful in bringing us closer to a solution as a methane outburst from a Holstein. We need to acknowledge that America’s energy and transportation systems need changing and begin the conversation there, not just selfishly say that only other people are to blame.
When our year of book-related travel is complete, I will tally up our air and auto mileages and purchase equivalent carbon offsets. While carbon offsets do not eliminate the emissions we have created, they will prevent an equal amount of future carbon emissions by replacing that amount of fossil-fuel energy with power from renewable resources. It’s the best we can do right now.
My hope is that my book will ultimately accomplish more toward combating the causes of climate change, through changing public attitudes, than I could accomplish as one person resolving to give up virtually all air and auto travel.
As for Backpacker Magazine running SUV ads: as a field editor, I have as much influence over that as I do over a cow’s methane emissions. But again, is the problem really about where SUV ads run, or about how our vehicles are powered? Let’s be honest about the issue. Myopically focusing on one tiny aspect—such as, for example, the IPCC using current data to update previous findings, which is simply good science—doesn’t produce anything but an ignorant shouting match.

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