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Climate change having an outsize impact on national parks

"What is Glacier National Park if it doesn't have glaciers anymore?" researcher John Williams said.

By
Brooks Hays
Researchers warn that average temperatures in national parks have increased at twice the rate of other parts of the country while rainfall dropped significantly more in parks than in other areas. Lake McDonald, pictured, is the largest lake in Glacier National Park. Photo by skeeze/Pixabay
Researchers warn that average temperatures in national parks have increased at twice the rate of other parts of the country while rainfall dropped significantly more in parks than in other areas. Lake McDonald, pictured, is the largest lake in Glacier National Park. Photo by skeeze/Pixabay

Sept. 24 (UPI) -- National parks in the United States are experiencing the effects of climate change more intensely than surrounding areas.

New analysis by climate scientists at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed temperatures inside national parks have increased at twice the rate of temperatures outside.

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National parks have also experienced more intense drought conditions as a result of climate change, according to the new paper, published Monday in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

The findings are especially worrisome for the hundreds of small mammal species that rely on national parks for suitable habitat. When temperatures increase at such a pronounced rate, scientists warned, vulnerable plants and animals may not be able to migrate to cooler climates quickly enough.

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Previous studies have shown the effects of human-caused climate change are pronounced at higher elevation, as well as in the Arctic. National parks in the United States encompass significant acreage in Alaska and high-altitude regions in the Rockies.

Glaciers in Colorado are disappearing, and many alpine species are on the decline.

"National parks aren't a random sample -- they are remarkable places and many happen to be in extreme environments," Patrick Gonzalez, associate adjunct professor of environmental science at UC Berkeley, said in a news release. "Many are in places that are inherently more exposed to human-caused climate change."

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For the new study, Gonzalez and his research partners analyzed temperature and precipitation data from national park weather stations. The analysis showed the average temperature inside national parks increased a little more than 1 degree Celsius between 1895 and 2010.

During the last century, temperatures inside national parks have increased at twice the rate of temperatures outside. Photo by Patrick Gonzalez, et al./Environmental Research Letters

Scientists also downscaled climate models to produce more detailed warming predictions inside national parks. The analysis showed extreme warming could yield between 5 and 7 degrees of warming inside national parks.

Curbing emissions as prescribed by the Paris agreement, however, would limit warming to between 1 and 3 degrees Celsius, the analysis found.

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Authors of the new study say the National Park Service is using the latest modeling predictions to make planning and resource management decisions.

"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," said John Williams, professor of geography at Wisconsin. "At this point, 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?"

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