National parks have been dubbed America’s best idea. But it turns out the the crown jewels of our country are incredibly poorly situated when it comes to climate change.
A new study published on Monday in Environmental Research Letters shows that the 417 parks, monuments, battlefields, and other sites under the National Park Service’s (NPS) purview are warming up twice as fast as the U.S. as a whole. The heat is expected to continue into the 21st century, and it’ll affect more than your family vacation. The unique ecosystems that parks protect could go up in smoke, melt away or be swallowed by the sea. Which means the agency could fail to fulfill its mission of preserving these landscapes unimpaired for future generations.
The study’s authors previously looked only at national parks. But this is the first analysis of its kind to look at all of the nearly 80 million acres of public land that NPS manages. Using weather data collected since 1895 and then climate projections out to 2100, the results paint a picture of a system in flux.
The fact that parks are warming more rapidly than the country at large is due to a few factors. The biggest one is geography. Many of the nation’s largest parks are in Alaska, and high latitudes are warming much more rapidly than lower latitudes.
Even pulling out Alaska, though, the analysis found parks in the contiguous U.S. were warming faster than the rest of the Lower 48. This is again due to where the largest NPS sites are: The Southwest and high elevations of the Mountain West are among the Lower 48's fastest warming areas. More park sites are also drying out compared the rest of the U.S., a potent combination that will affect everything from snowpack to glaciers to fires.
As the century progresses, things will only get more dire for parks. A business as usual scenario could see some parks warm up to 9 degrees Celsius (16.2 degrees Fahrenheit) above the late 20th century average if we continue emitting carbon dioxide on a business-as-usual strategy. On the whole, U.S. warming will likely catch up to parks, but that’s a small comfort. It just means it will be hot AF everywhere. At least there’s air conditioning in the lodges?
The plants, animals, and scenery people go to parks to enjoy will all be impacted. We’re already seeing the beginning of those impacts right now. Just look at the summer of fires that have shut down parks or the glacier vanishing before our eyes. In the future, we could see Joshua trees extirpated from the park that bears their name. Ditto for glaciers in Glacier. And this doesn’t even get to the impacts of sea level rise and ocean acidification on coastal parks and tropical reefs.
The current administration doesn’t seem to grasp that the time to plan for these impacts is now. In fact Ryan Zinke, who oversees the parks from his perch at the Department of Interior, rescinded climate change planning policies for the agency earlier this year. He shrunk monuments in Utah at the behest of the fossil fuel industry. And then there was sea level rise report draft that had climate change wiped from it before a public outcry. Zinke may enjoy dressing up like a park ranger, but the way he’s managed the agency is a far cry from its mission and the challenges climate change poses to it.
“It’s vital that parks management and planning takes the best climate science into account, and that agencies responsible for neighboring lands and buffer zones (e.g. BLM, USFS) coordinate on climate adaptation and resilience strategies,” Adam Markham, a deputy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists who has written extensive on public lands, told Earther in an email. “The current administration’s attempts to ignore deny and sideline climate science, and instead advance the interests of the coal and oil lobbies could be catastrophic for our public lands and national parks.”
The sliver of a silver lining in this study is that cutting carbon pollution rapidly can make a huge difference. Under business-as-usual, all parks are expected warm at least 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. If we cut emissions drastically, the percentage of parks that will surpass the threshold could shrink to 22 percent. If having a habitable planet isn’t enough of a reason to cut emissions, maybe thinking of poor, adorable pikas stranded on the top of a mountain will be.