Thursday, September 08, 2016

Climate Impacts:  Melting Glaciers, Shifting Biomes, and Dying Trees in U.S. National Parks

Trees are dying across Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks. (image Credit: National Park Service/Flickr)  Click to Enlarge.
Research in U.S. national parks contributes in important ways to global scientific understanding of climate change.

National parks are unique places where it is easier to tell if human climate change is the main cause of changes that we observe in the field, because many parks have been protected from urbanization, timber harvesting, grazing and other nonclimate factors.  The results of this research highlight how urgently we need to reduce carbon pollution to protect the future of the national parks.

Melting Glaciers, Dying Trees
Human-caused climate change has altered landscapes, water, plants and animals in our national parks.  Research in the parks has used two scientific procedures to show that this is occurring:  detection and attribution. Detection is the finding of statistically significant changes over time.  Attribution is the analysis of the different causes of the changes.

Around the world and in U.S. national parks, snow and ice are melting.  Glaciers in numerous national parks have contributed to the global database of 168 000 glaciers that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has used to show that human climate change is melting glaciers.  Field measurements and repeat photography show that Muir Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska lost 640 meters to melting from 1948 to 2000.

In Glacier National Park in Montana, Agassiz Glacier receded 1.5 kilometers from 1926 to 1979.  Snow measurements and tree cores from Glacier National Park, North Cascades National Park, and other national parks contributed to an analysis showing that snowpack across the western U.S. has dropped to its lowest level in eight centuries.
Managing National Parks in a Changing Climate
When the U.S. Congress established the National Park Service a century ago, it directed the agency to conserve the natural and cultural resources of the parks in ways to leave them “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”  By altering the globally unique landscapes, waters, plants and animals of the national parks, climate change challenges the National Park Service to manage the parks for potential future conditions rather than as little pictures of a past to which we can no longer return.

For example, Yosemite National Park resource managers plan to use climate change data to target prescribed burns and wildland fires in areas that will be different from the areas selected using estimates of fire distributions from the 1850s.  At Golden Gate National Recreation Area, resource managers have examined stewardship plans resource-by-resource to develop actions that account for climate change.  At Everglades National Park, managers are using sea level rise data to help plan management of coastal areas.

Continued climate change is not inevitable.

It is in our power to reduce carbon pollution from cars, power plants and deforestation and prevent the most drastic consequences of climate change.  In the face of climate change, we can help protect our most treasured places – the national parks.

By Patrick Gonzalez, National Park Service

Read more at Climate Impacts:  Melting Glaciers, Shifting Biomes, and Dying Trees in U.S. National Parks

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