Climate MattersApril 13, 2022

Our Changing National Parks

Our Changing National Parks

KEY CONCEPTS

  • National Park Week kicks off this Saturday, April 16. As our climate changes, national parks are changing too. 

  • Since their founding in 1916, all but one of 62 major national parks have warmed—with most (63%) of these warming by 2 °F or more, according to Climate Central analysis.

  • By the year 2100, annual average temperatures across these 62 parks could be 5.5 to 11.0 °F warmer than during 1991-2020, depending on how quickly we reduce heat-trapping emissions.

  • The National Park Service is adapting for the impacts of current and future climate change to ensure the resilience of these treasured recreational, cultural, and ecological resources.

On April 22, NASA is celebrating the planet under our feet and in our hearts – Earth! Fifty-two years and counting, celebrate Earth Day with a NASA Expert. For interviews, click here.

Future Warming Choices in National Parks - Our Changing National Parks
Future Warming Choices in National Parks

Happy National Park Week! National Park Week kicks off this Saturday, April 16—when park entrance fees will be waived. The entire week is about exploring your local park and celebrating the 400+ treasured parks across the U.S.

More than 297 million people visited national parks in 2021. But the parks aren’t just about tourism and recreation. They also provide cultural, ecological, geologic, and educational resources.

Changing climate, changing parks. As our climate changes, national parks are changing too. In fact, between 1895 and 2010, national parks warmed at twice the national rate—reflecting that much of the total park area is in climate-vulnerable places including the Arctic, mountains, and arid regions.

102 years of warming in national parks. Climate Central’s analysis of temperatures in 62 national parks since their founding in 1916 found that:

  • All but one of the 62 parks analyzed showed a warming trend from 1916 to 2018.

  • Over this 102-year period, 63% (39) of the analyzed parks warmed by 2 °F or more.

What do these historical warming trends mean for the future of our national parks?

Future warming choices in national parks. Climate Central analysis shows that the choices we make now could lead to very different outcomes for parks.

By the year 2100, annual average temperatures across 62 major national parks could warm between 5.5 and 11.0 °F compared to the 1991-2020 baseline—depending on how quickly we reduce heat-trapping emissions (see methodology here).

The four parks that could see the most future warming are all in Alaska. Kobuk Valley National Park in Arctic Alaska is projected to warm the most by 2100, when annual average temperatures could be 9.6 to 18.6 °F warmer than the 1991-2020 baseline.

These levels of warming mean that future generations could inherit national parks that are altogether different from those we enjoy today.

Adapting for an uncertain future. The National Park Service is already adapting to current and expected future changes brought by warming. A recent National Park Service report provides a set of guidance for park managers to develop adaptation strategies for the unique risks faced in each park.

Parks are also reducing heat-trapping emissions through energy conservation, public transportation, and renewable energy—in addition to pursuing nature-based solutions such as forest conservation and ecosystem restoration.

POTENTIAL LOCAL STORY ANGLES

What is National Park Week?
The National Park Service and National Park Foundation websites include more information about National Park Week including this year’s theme, in-person and virtual events, and park finder tools. 

Climate Central’s other media resources for national parks include:

What climate risks are national parks facing?
With over 400 park units across the National Park Service, parks are facing a wide range of climate risks. 

  • Current and future climate risks in parks are discussed in a comprehensive analysis of climate vulnerability across the National Parks System. 

  • A 2020 publication reviews examples of past and anticipated future climate impacts in national parks, including: glacial melt, snow cover reduction, drought, wildfire increase, tree mortality, biome shifts, sea level rise, ocean warming and acidification, species loss, and wildlife shifts.

  • Documented climate impacts and future vulnerabilities in national parks include: changes in visitation, drought or heavy rain, vulnerable infrastructure, seasonal shifts, coastal and soil erosion, habitat degradation, ocean acidification, flood risk, poor air quality, and invasive species. 

How are national parks adapting to climate change?
The National Park Service uses scenario planning to prepare for a range of likely future conditions in parks. For more information on scenario planning and examples of it in action at individual parks, check out the Climate Change Scenario Planning Showcase. Strategic decision-making about the future of park resources is also informed by the resist–accept–direct framework.

​​The National Park Service also includes 18 Research Learning Centers across the U.S. that support scientific research, education, and science-based visitor experiences. The National Park Service also manages a range of datasets, maps, publications, and other resources to support the science of our changing parks. 

LOCAL EXPERTS 

The SciLine service, 500 Women Scientists or the press offices of local universities may be able to connect you with local scientists who have relevant expertise. The American Association of State Climatologists is a professional scientific organization composed of all 50 state climatologists.

NATIONAL EXPERTS 

  • Nicholas Fisichelli, PhD
    President and CEO
    Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park
    nfisichelli@schoodicinstitute.org
    Related expertise: Climate change adaptation, forest ecology, and park stewardship

  • Patrick Gonzalez, Ph.D.
    Associate Adjunct Professor, Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management
    Faculty Affiliate, Institute for Parks, People, and Biodiversity
    University of California, Berkeley
    patrickgonzalez@berkeley.edu
    Related expertise: observed impacts, projected risks, and carbon solutions in U.S. national parks

METHODOLOGY

Historical average annual temperature data was obtained for the centroid coordinates of 62 national parks using the University of East Anglia’s CRU TS v4.05 dataset. Projection data was calculated using data from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project 6 (CMIP6). We downloaded data from the CMIP6 repository and created time series for each of the national parks. For each park, the data consist of monthly temperatures estimated by 35 models under SSP1-2.6 (low CO2) and SSP3-7.0 (high CO2) scenarios. The data were averaged for each year and then the time series were smoothed to emphasize the change in the average conditions, rather than year-to-year variability. Next, we combined the models for each park to estimate the median temperature and confidence intervals for the two scenarios. Thus, if a graphic shows a temperature of 65°F in 2050 for a particular scenario, that means that if CO2 emissions play out as depicted in the scenario, then the temperature in the years around 2050 should average out to 65°F. Any particular year could be above or below this value.  For a more detailed methodology of how we generally calculate projection data, see here.