Study: National parks could be hardest hit by climate change

Imagine Joshua Tree National Park without its iconic spiky yucca palms or Glacier National Park without glaciers
By Nick Jaynes

Joshua Tree National Park. | Dennis Silvas/Shutterstock

Imagine Joshua Tree National Park without its iconic spiky yucca palms or Glacier National Park without its namesake glaciers. It’s an image that could be a reality by 2100. According a new study by scientists at University of California at Berkeley and University of Wisconsin published in Environmental Research Letters, the high elevation of the United States’ national parks could leave them most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. And national parks being at higher elevation compared with the rest of the country matters because the thinner atmosphere at higher elevation makes the land more susceptible to higher rates of temperature increase. The researchers looked at park temperatures between 1895 and 2010. They found average park temperatures rose by twice as much as other areas of the country. Over that same period, parks also saw decreased levels of precipitation.
The study’s visual map of climate change. | Environmental Research Letters, Gonzalez et al.
While national parks account for four percent of the U.S. land area, 63 percent of all park area is located in Alaska—a state extremely vulnerable to rising temperatures. As ice and snow melts, it uncovers darker land. And darker surfaces absorb more heat than highly reflective ice and snow, which only accelerates rising temperatures.

Certainly, the study is disappointing. There are two things to keep in mind when reading it.

First, the likely degradation of our national parks should underscore the importance of visiting the parks now. That way, you can appreciate for them in their current glory.

Secondarily, and it might be overly optimistic to say this, places like Glacier National Park will still be a gorgeous park—even without any of its namesake glaciers to behold.

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