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Words Tamara Batshon

When we think of national parks, we imagine wide-open spaces, lush forests, an abundance of wildlife, and snow-capped mountains safely protected from human development. Unfortunately, nothing can protect these areas from the impact of climate change. Slowly but surely, climate change is affecting our planet in every way possible.  Already the glorious sprawling national parks and monuments throughout the United States have started to feel the scale of the threat. The U.S. National Parks Service (NPS), which manages these parks and monuments, has been documenting the loss of glaciers, the rising sea levels, and the increase in wildfires caused by rising temperatures. According to experts, things are only going to get worse.

The scale of the threat to America’s heritage as represented in 412 national parks, archeological sites, and monuments has become too prominent to ignore. As a result of crashing waves, wildfires, and erosion triggered by warming temperatures, the landscape of this country is under threat. Among the monuments, the iconic Statue of Liberty, proudly looming over New York harbor since 1886, is at risk from increasingly harsh storms. In fact, after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, it even closed for a whole nine months. In Maryland, a national monument dedicated to abolitionist Harriet Tubman could be eroded sooner than we imagine by rising tides.

6.2 million square miles

of Northen Hemisphere ice and snow melted in just one month between April and May 2013.

No more glaciers?

Barak Obama pointed out to the media during his visit to Glacier National Park in June 2016 that the glacier, once a mile wide, is almost gone.  He said: “Rising temperatures could mean no more glaciers in Glacier National Park, no more Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park. That’s not the America I want to pass on to the next generation.” Sadly the next generation of Americans may not have the privilege of enjoying these famous natural reservation sites, as we know them.

In the mid-1800s, Glacier National Park had around 150 ice sheets and today just 25 remain. Scientists predict that this park could have no more glaciers as soon as 2030. What would they call it then, one might wonder? Receding ice, extreme heat, and acidifying oceans are causing damage at a faster pace than any time in human history. Scientists even say that no matter how fast greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, the changes are inevitable.

Yosemite National Park, California, USA
Yosemite National Park, California, USA

At the Rocky Mountain National, Park the average annual temperature has increased by 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the last century. This rise means that winter becomes shorter and milder while summers become longer and warmer. As snow starts to melt sooner in the spring, it means less water in the summer for plants and animals. These slight changes in the timing of seasons impact the water supply and the timing of natural events, such as when flowers bloom and when plants grow. The Yellowstone National Park is also experiencing significant changes because of warmer temperatures.  Similar to Rocky Mountain National Park, snow is projected to melt increasingly earlier in the years ahead, reducing the water supply that flows downstream, which will negatively impact the animals, farmers, and other communities in the area.

Perhaps the most impact is beginning to show in the state of Alaska, as it is also part of the Arctic, the fastest warming region on Earth. The state has 24 national parks, including Denali, the largest protected park in the US at six million acres (9,400 square miles). Permafrost, which lies underneath 80% of Alaska, is beginning to melt, causing sinkholes and landslides. Glacier loss is also an alarming consequence that can harm nearby communities, including animals and vegetation. The northwest coast is slowly eroding in places from the sea level rise and intense storms, while wildfires are spreading faster, with less snow cover to contain them.

Yellowstone National Park, USA
Yellowstone National Park, USA

Warmer temperatures pose dangers

In other areas of the US, the fire season is also expanding dramatically and the warmer temperatures have a multitude of consequences. In Hawaii for example, invasive mosquitoes that are increasing as a result of the warmer forest temperatures are targeting the native birds. In California the iconic sequoia trees, now down to 65 groves, could be wiped out by a warmer, drier climate. Red spruce, balsam fir, Joshua and other tree species could face the same fate.  These changes impact the food chain, and this has dire consequences. For example, the grizzly bears of Yellowstone Park feast on the cone seeds of the white bark pine, which are already under attack from the mountain pine beetle. If warmer winters encourage the beetle population, the bears will seek another food source, impacting other species.  In rivers for example, as the water gets warmer salmon and other cold-water fish will be threatened. Less snow will also affect plenty of species.  Clearly the detrimental effects of climate change will increase and become more widespread as time goes on.

For nearly a century the NPS has been preserving the natural beauty and resources within these parks throughout the United States. Unfortunately there is only so much it can do when the climate in and around the parks is drastically changing.  If you are thinking of visiting any of these famous national parks one day, don’t put it off, as it may be better to go sooner rather than later, so as not to be disappointed.

Rocky Mountain National Park, USA
Rocky Mountain National Park, USA
 Glacier National Park, Montana, USA
Glacier National Park, Montana, USA
Landscape in Joshua Tree National Park, California, USA
Landscape in Joshua Tree National Park, California, USA
Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska, USA
Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska, USA