America’s National Parks: Canaries in the Climate Change Coal Mine

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"The house of America is founded upon our land and if we keep that whole, then the storm can rage, but the house will stand forever." – President Lyndon B. Johnson

Despite the easy association of American culture with prosperity and modernity, historically, it was America’s National parks that were seen as a reflection of national character, as well as national priorities.

Travel to America’s National Parks, and you are quickly reminded that it is not our wealth, not our cars, not our designer boutiques, our high rise buildings or our suburban homes that define America. Rather, as so many have said, it is these parks that are the crown jewels of our country.

I was reminded of this over the last two weeks as I hiked through the lunar landscape of Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park and the pine forests, streams and crystal blue lakes of California’s Yosemite National Park.

But I also learned something new and disturbing: All is not well in America’s National Parks, where the impacts of climate change are already apparent, not only where I hiked, but in parks all across the nation.

The idea of a National Parks system began in the mid-1800’s and today, there are National Parks in every state except for Delaware. This fall, you’ll be able to watch a 12-hour series on PBS that chronicles the people and policies that created and protect the park system. Made by the award-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, the series took 6 years to make. Burns gave it a simple and true title: The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.

But off screen and on the ground, here’s what I found out about our National Parks myself: the park system may need protecting from more than careless tourists with matches and drill happy politicians, but also from America’s fossil-fueled prosperity and modernity.

Trees in Yosemite are Shrinking

Last week, the US Geological Survey (USGS), part of the Department of the Interior, announced that large trees have declined in number in Yosemite National Park during the 20th century, and they believe that warmer climatic conditions may be playing a role.

The number of large diameter trees dropped 24% between 1932 (the earliest records available) and 1999. This is of consequence not just for trees. It also means habitat loss and adverse affects for species including spotted owls, mosses, orchids and fishers (a carnivore related to weasels). It also is causing a decline in the overall number of trees since large diameter trees are a seed source for new trees and also tend to be more fire resistant. Data from another National Park —  Sequoia and Kings Canyon —  home to some of the world’s largest trees, are showing similar trends in declining tree diameter.

“Although this study did not investigate the causes of decline, climate change is a likely contributor to these events and should be taken into consideration,” said USGS scientist emeritus Jan van Wagtendonk. “Warmer conditions increase the length of the summer dry season and decrease the snowpack that provides much of the water for the growing season. A longer summer dry season can also reduce tree growth and vigor, and can reduce trees’ ability to resist insects and pathogens.”

Wagtendonk said that he has been criticized for speculation but told me “I stand by everything I said.” Later he explained why he feels it is important to make the connections.

“These data are important,” he said, “because it does indicate that changes are occurring in places that are held near and dear by the public. People don’t relate what they do in their personal lives to its impacts on the National Parks but what happens in the Bay Area or Los Angeles affects us here.”

I also spoke with Dr. Michael Dettinger, a Research Hydrologist with the USGS who has studied water systems and patterns in Yosemite. Dettinger is more cautious about speculating on the causes of the changes he is seeing, but he did confirm that “looking at long term historical records, what we have found and documented is that warming over the past several decades has reduced the amount of snow on the ground each spring, substantially in some areas. It has also changed when the western rivers rise to spring time peak flows.”

He also spoke about another phenomenon they are seeing in Yosemite; a shift in the ratio of snow to rain.

“During the average winter storm dating back to 1915, about 15% of the park would get rain – the lower parts – and the upper 85% would get snow. During this storm,” he explained, referring to a storm in the park in 2005 that caused a major flood in Yosemite Valley, although only an inch of rain fell, “the rain went clear up to 10,000 feet and reversed that; 85% of the park was getting rain and 15% was getting snow.”

Although he personally did not want to speculate about cause, he did share with me that the Department of Water Resources believes that climate change is the culprit. “The Department of Water Resources routinely trots out flow records from other parts of the Sierra that look a lot like what we see in Yosemite,” he told me “and they say that there are more floods now and that it’s because of global warming.”

Scientists have also documented a shift in the types of trees populating Yosemite — fewer fire-tolerant Ponderosa Pines and more fire-intolerant White Fir and Incense Cedar. This may very well lead to increased frequency and severity of wildfires in Yosemite.

And in Yosemite, as in the Great Basin National Parks, high-elevation species, such as the pika and Alpine Chipmunk, are moving upslope. Researchers speculate that it is because of warmer temperatures, averaging 3 degrees warmer in Yosemite Valley during the winter months, reducing their habitat area.

I spoke to Dr. Jim Patton, Curator and Professor Emeritus of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley about this phenomenon. Dr. Patton conducted the research comparing current faunal diversity with that published in 1924 in Animal Life in Yosemite. He explained that about half of the 30 or so vertebrate species in and around the park have shown distributional change.

Scientists have also documented that glaciers on Mt Lyell are half the size they once were and that growth patterns of White Bark Pine at the tree line have changed, phenomena Patton says are indicative of warmer winters.

”The most dramatic species is the Alpine Chipmunk, which is only found in high elevations in California around the Yosemite area,” he said. “Back in 1924, it was common around Tuolumne Meadows, which is at 9800 feet elevation, down to Glen Aulin which is at 7800 feet"

"Now you can’t find them until you get up to almost 10,000 feet. They have really retracted significantly.”

Patton’s group has been doing DNA sequencing on the species and have discovered that along with the retraction in habitat has come a loss of genetic diversity among the Alpine Chipmunk.

“Even our most pristine National Parks are being affected by climate change, so they’re not immune to that,” he says. “On the other hand, despite the kind of climate change we are seeing, the park hasn’t lost any species at all. But if current trends continue, there’s a real likelihood that the park will begin losing some of these fauna forms. If that’s true for the Alpine Chipmunk, that species will be lost forever.”

Yosemite is not the only park at risk from a changing climate. The NRDC put out a list of the top 12 western National Parks (pdf) most at risk from climate disruption. The list includes Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico, Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton in Wyoming.

The National Parks are the Canary in the Coal Mine

Back in April, the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands heard testimony from experts on the effects of climate change on the National Parks. Jonathan B. Jarvis, Regional Director of the Pacific West Region for the National Park Service (NPS) explained that the mission of the NPS is to maintain the parks in their natural condition and “leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations”.

“Climate change,” Jarvis testified “is potentially the most far-reaching and consequential challenge to our mission than any previously encountered in the entire history of the NPS.”

“Our national park units can serve as the proverbial canary in the coal mine, a place where we can monitor and document ecosystem change without many of the stressors that are found on other public lands.”

And Michael Cipra, California Desert Program Manager for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) testified before the sub-committee that “the single greatest threat to the health of our national parks is global climate change.”

Archaeological sites and coral reefs, ancient glaciers and snowfields, cultural resources, biodiversity and forests are all under threat because of a warming climate. The canary is gasping for air.

Moving from Mitigation to Adaptation

Disturbingly, AARP, the organization representing people over 50, put out a list in October naming 8 National Parks to see before it’s too late — not too late for its membership because of their advancing age, but too late because of global warming. Among the parks it lists, Joshua Tree National Park in California – where the April hearings were held – which may no longer have Joshua trees in the southern part of the park because the temperatures are too warm.

“What does it mean to have a Joshua Tree National Park without Joshua trees? On a scientific level, it means fewer animals and an ecosystem out of balance. On an economic level, it means fewer recreation visits and less money generated for our communities. And on a spiritual level, it means that our grandchildren will see a diminished world,” Michael Cipra said.

Or take the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina where acid rain, ground-level ozone pollution and an invasive insect called the balsam woolly adelgid are destroying the park’s Fraser firs. Bark and Pine beetle infestations as a result of higher temperatures and droughts are attacking the trees in Bandelier and Rocky Mountain National Parks, among others. These dying forests go from being carbon sinks to becoming carbon emitters. Reuters reported this week that in the Medicine Bow National Forest, carbon storage capacity has decrease by half in the last 3 to 4 years, according to U.S. Forest Service scientist Mike Ryan.

Everglades National Park in Florida is under threat from rising sea levels and stronger, more frequent hurricanes, both results of climate change. Coral reefs are dying in Biscayne and Virgin Island National Parks due to temperature changes and ocean acidification. Non-native grasses like buffelgrass, proliferating in warmer temperatures, are turning Arizona’s Sonoran Desert into a tinderbox. And then there is the iconic Glacier National Park in Montana, which may not have any glaciers left by 2030. The list goes on and on.

Cipra explained in his testimony how what we do in our cities impacts National Parks hundreds of miles away, and the direct link between air pollution and wildfires.

“High levels of nitrogen are currently being deposited on the soil in Joshua Tree National Park by air pollution moving east from the Los Angeles Basin. Dr. Edith Allen of the University of California at Riverside found that these nitrogen levels are 15 to 30 times higher than the levels in an undisturbed ecosystem.

"The park’s native desert plants have evolved to thrive without this extra nitrogen. But many invasive plants, grasses in particular, do really well with the added fertilizer from air pollution. Exotic grasses, such as red brome and cheatgrass, now represent up to 60 percent of the park’s biomass from annual plants.

"The increased fuel loads provided by these exotic grasses can then carry lightning-ignited fires from plant to plant, resulting in increasingly large and destructive wildfires throughout the Mojave Desert region.

"In 1999, the Juniper Complex fire, burned 13,894 acres of slow-growing California junipers, pinyon pines, and Joshua trees. This was the largest fire in Joshua Tree National Park’s history.”

Back in 2007, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) put out 184 page report (pdf) that came out of a workshop, CLIMATE CHANGE: Agencies Should Develop Guidance for Addressing the Effects on Federal Land and Water Resources. The report was directed at the NPS along with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Forest Service (FS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It basically tells the agencies that the effects of climate change on public land are inevitable, it’s time to plan for adaptation.

As I hiked with my 15-year old daughter and our dog, I saw signs in Yosemite and in the surrounding Stanislaus National Forest informing us the fire danger was "‘extremely high." We passed swaths of land that had been burned out. Even in the vastness of the National Parks, we were seeing the signs of the consequences of over-consumption and pollution.

President Theodore Roosevelt warned the nation against the thoughtless destruction of our natural heritage and worked to protect it.

"We of an older generation can get along with what we have, though with growing hardship; but in your full manhood and womanhood you will want what nature once so bountifully supplied and man so thoughtlessly destroyed; and because of that want you will reproach us, not for what we have used, but for what we have wasted," he said.

"So any nation which in its youth lives only for the day, reaps without sowing, and consumes without husbanding, must expect the penalty of the prodigal whose labor could with difficulty find him the bare means of life."

That complicated thought, imbued with moral concern for future generations, finds echo in a sound bite in the present age. In the trailer to the Ken Burns series, writer Nevada Barr tells the story of a man coming up to a ranger at the gates of Yosemite. The man says to the ranger, "I only have an hour to see Yosemite. If you only had an hour to see Yosemite, what would you do?" The ranger responds,

"If I only had an hour to see Yosemite, I would sit on that rock over there and cry."


See Also
Plan urged to save national parks from global warming effects (LA Times)

National Park Survival Guide for a Warming World (NPCA)