The US National Parks and Climate Change: 3 Important Facts

How have the US national parks altered due to climate change?

By Jane Blossom

There is no denying that the planet is changing. Sea levels and temperatures are rising, and it’s hard to ignore the effect that this has on nature and animals around the world. It’s not a far away problem, either, or confined to one specific area – we can see the damage everywhere we go, and it is widely reported across the global news outlets.

The US national parks are some of the most breathtaking, broad-ranging landscapes in the world. From deserts to ice-covered swathes of land, they’re perhaps one of the planet’s best examples of natural diversity. There are 63 parks with ‘national park’ in their name, and they form part of a wider collection of 423 parks in total. They span every corner of the US, and range from the famous, like Yosemite, to the smaller, lesser-known havens.

Collectively, they are home to thousands of species of plants and animals. With the average American spending a miniscule 7% of their time outdoors, it’s never been more important to protect these spaces. Not only do they allow people to connect with nature, but the parks are also a valuable learning resource for scientists, and provide employment for rangers and customer service workers.

But what effect is climate change having on the condition and longevity of the National Parks? We take a look.

Changing Ecosystems

Healthy trees are a vital part of managing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Trees naturally absorb CO2 and transform it into food for themselves, thus reducing the amount in the air. They retain this CO2 until they are cut down or decompose.

Climate change causes less stable temperatures, with sharp hot spells followed by flash flooding. This can make it difficult for young trees to get established, or for older trees to continue to thrive. It can also reduce the total surface area of specific ecosystems overall, especially coastal areas. This decline in tree numbers will directly affect the amount of CO2 that is absorbed from the atmosphere.

The heat also brings with it an increased wildfire risk, as trees and grasslands will be dry and therefore easily catch alight. It is expected that there will be a 200-600% increase in the amount of acres that are ravaged by wildfires by 2050. These fires drive native animals from their home, damage the ground and burn trees which are thousands of years old. When the trees burn, the carbon that they have absorbed over the years is released back into the atmosphere.

US National Parks Have Altered due to Climate Change: Zion National Park
Zion National Park
Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Rising Sea Levels

As the ice caps melt, the sea levels rise, which in turn increases the risk of flooding and coastal erosion. This can mean that animals who rely on the ice for their homes lose their habitat, as well as those who live on land.

Freak storms can also cause higher amounts of rainwater than average to contribute to water sources, making rivers burst their banks and lakes overflow. These storms are happening more and more frequently due to climate change, negatively affecting all habitats in the US national parks.

Many of the plants in the parks also rely on a good balance between water sources and the landscape around them. There are only certain species that can cope with being completely submerged, and continued waterlogging can cause many species to suffer and die.

Reduced Species Population

Plants rely on the weather being seasonal in order to know when to grow or rest, and in turn the animals around them adapt to eat what is available. Bees and other insects also rely on being able to pollinate in the spring months, and if flowers bloom earlier or later, they too have to alter their pattern to adapt.

However, some animals and plants are not able to be as flexible. For example, rising temperatures are warming the air, which is in turn warming the water. Brook trout are one such species whose numbers are declining as they must have cold, clear water to survive.

Future of the National Parks

Climate change is affecting national parks all across the country, and the scale of the problem is much larger than anyone can tackle alone. The park service has outlined a strategy for tackling and adapting to our changing climate, and we can all do our part to make our daily lives greener – the positive effects will be felt far and wide.