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Study Documents Impacts Of Climate Change Across National Park System


Impacts of climate change on the National Park System are such that it is "no longer ecologically viable to manage resources solely within park boundaries," according to a study that found parks "are overwhelmingly at the extreme warm end of historical temperature distributions..."

The study, published this month in the PLOS One Journal, comes at a time of relative political indifference in Washington, D.C., over climate change and how to deal with it. Additionally, a Pew Research Center poll conducted in January found that just 29 percent of the public thought dealing with global warming should be a top priority for the Congress and the president.

With such tepid support, the cold and snowy winter (in some parts of the country) of 2013-14, and recent news that the Great Lakes have been rapidly rising in the wake of last year's historic low levels, what reception might this study, Climate Exposure of US National Parks in a New Era of Change, receive?

The evidence cited in the study was compiled the National Park Service's Natural Resource Stewardship & Science branch in Fort Collins, Colorado. Scientists William B. Monahan and Nicholas A. Fisichelli researched climate data of the last 10-30 years and compared it to the historical range of variability (HRV) from 1901 to 2012 from 289 national parks. "They found that temperatures are now at the high end of the range of temperatures measured since 1901," a Park Service release noted.

According to the study, fauna and flora throughout the system already are exhibiting responses to climate change, Southwestern parks are warmer and drier than their historical range of variability, those in Hawaii are warmer and drier, those in the Northeast warmer and wetter, those in the Midwest warmer, and those in the Southeast "exhibit signs of the 'warming hole,'" the authors note.

Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, which stretches from Washington, D.C., west through Maryland and into West Virginia, has been wetter than in the past. Mojave National Preserve in California has been experiencing an "extreme" warm and dry climate of late. Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in Pennsylvania and New Jersey has been witnessing an "extreme warm and wet" climate compared to historical trends. 

Some park units have, essentially, reached the ceiling of warming temperatures when compared to the historical record. At Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin, the authors noted, "any continued increase in temperature will push the park higher than all warm quarter temperatures it has experienced since 1901."

"Similarly, many parks are already extreme dry or wet; if these observed extremes are followed by future changes in the same direction, then affected parks will experience precipitation regimes unlike any they have seen in over a century," the narrative continued.

While the recent rise in water levels of the Great Lakes should be welcome news to the Park Service at Apostle Islands, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, what remains to be seen is whether the rise reflects "a return to normal" or a "new normal" in which lake levels will rise and fall with regularity, said Apostle Islands Superintendent Bob Krumenaker.

"Most scientists believe the latter, as do I," Superintendent Krumenaker wrote the Traveler in an email. "We're still lowering dock surfaces, one this year still at Little Sand Bay. Does it make me nervous? A little, but the new designs are much more resilient than the old ones so the docks will work better under a variety of lake conditions. There is always going to be volatility in lake levels, and long-term climate change induced patterns are superimposed on that volatility.

"I have to make the best decision I can with the best information that's available as the park commits to an infrastructure that will last 20 to 50 years. Even with this year's higher water, I think lowering docks still makes sense, as the vast majority of peer-reviewed scientific models suggest lower lake levels are more likely than higher most of the time."

The authors of the new climate study predict that the "new normal" for many of the 401 units of the National Park System will be warmer, while precipitation will either increase or decrease, depending on location.

"...even considering just temperature and precipitation, climate projections for the 21st century suggest many park geographies will become warmer and either drier or wetter. Regionally, these predictions generally follow the same patterns and trends seen in our results. In other words, climate change is ongoing, and parks are already experiencing changes that can be documented without having to necessarily look out an additional 50 or 100 years. Importantly, future changes in temperature and precipitation will likely push many parks beyond the limits of their (historical range of variability)."

“This report shows that climate change continues to be the most far-reaching and consequential challenge ever faced by our national parks,” said Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis.  “Our national parks can serve as places where we can monitor and document ecosystem change without many of the stressors that are found on other public lands.”

The study's authors see this climatic landscape as just one more challenge for the National Park Service as it heads into its second century. 

"The new century brings new challenges in terms of stewarding park resources in the face of environmental drivers that operate beyond park boundaries. Climate change further challenges us to develop new, ecologically viable desired conditions to guide the preservation of park resources in this new era of change. While such challenges remain paramount, more integrative research and education in the climate and landscape arenas will contribute to solutions," they concluded.

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