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Study tracks global warming in national parks

Scientists track impacts to ecoystems as temperatures rise

Great Sand Dunes National Park may not be one of the most-visited, but it's definitely one of the most intriguing. Bob Berwyn photo.

How will global warming affect wildflowers in Great Sand Dunes National Park?

FRISCO — National Parks across the country are facing an era of change because of global warming, scientists concluded in a new study showing that many parks are already experiencing temperatures that are near the extreme high end of the scale, based on measurements going back to 1910.

The report by National Park Service scientists concludes  “that climate change is happening in America’s national parks, and in some cases in rapid and concerning ways,” and that “measurable plant and animal responses to recent climate change have already been documented.”

“This report shows that climate change continues to be the most far-reaching and consequential challenge ever faced by our national parks,” National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said in a statement  “Our national parks can serve as places where we can monitor and document ecosystem change without many of the stressors that are found on other public lands.”

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, compared climate data from the past 30 years with the historical range of variability from 1901 to 2012 from 289 national parks. They found that temperatures are now at the high end of the range of temperatures measured since 1901. Annual average temperature, average temperature of the winter months, and average temperature of the summer months all showed similar trends.

“Studies like this are critical to inform national park managers and visitors alike about their local climate impacts so they can take proactive steps to address climate change,” Jarvis said. “Although the National Park Service alone cannot reverse the climate changes highlighted in this report, communicating these impacts with our 275 million annual visitors can make a difference.”

The data also point to changes in precipitation patterns over time. These findings are consistent with previous research by the National Park Service, as well as other national and international reports including the recently released National Climate Assessment.

Grand Canyon National Park is one example of an area with significant natural resources that has recently experienced extreme high average temperatures compared to its historical patterns. Warmer temperatures and extended drought are a direct threat to endangered species, and impacts the wildlife’s source of drinking water such as seeps and springs in the canyon.

Historic sites are not immune to the impacts of climate change. At Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, increased temperatures and hydrologic changes have the potential to alter the natural and manmade resources of the park.  These effects could include landscape changes that will affect access to and the structural integrity of bridges, locks, lock houses, culverts, dams, and monuments. Increased occurrences of severe storms, flooding, and other unpredictable weather, and changes in growing seasons will affect vegetation and the animals that depend on that vegetation.

With an eye on the approaching National Park Service centennial in 2016, the report highlights the need to provide up-to-date scientific information to park and neighboring land managers, and for sufficient climate science to be disseminated to the general public so that parks are positioned to protect their resources for future generations. Park managers will be increasingly challenged to develop management strategies to help park resources adapt to climate change, and how best to accomplish the task.

The international, on-line scientific journal PLoS ONE, highlighted this analysis in a new collection entitled “Responding to Climate Change,” in which it shares recent research focused on solutions to manage our resources in a changing climate. A copy of the original article online at http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0101302.

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