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Green Travel: Climate Change Threatens National Parks

11/24/2009 1:36:40 PM

Tags: climate change, national parks, green travel

Family vacations were a major part of my childhood. Almost every summer my parents would pack up the car and take me and my siblings to some famous, historic or natural site. Along the way I saw many national parks, from the famed Yellowstone to the little known El Morro, a popular campsite where early explorers carved their names into the sandstone bluffs.

As I’ve grown up, many structures and icons of my childhood have disappeared, victims of time. National parks, however, were one part of my past that I thought would be around for my children to enjoy. Now I’m not so sure.

Yosemite NP
Yosemite National Park. Photo By Christopher Chan/Courtesy Flickr. 

A new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization shows how climate change is threatening America’s national parks. The report, National Parks in Peril: The Threats of Climate Disruption, identifies 25 national parks that are at the greatest risk. The report lists some of America’s most beloved parks, such as Yosemite, Zion, Joshua Tree, Denali and the Great Smoky Mountains.

A number of climate-based factors will change the face of national parks, including loss of water, wildlife and plant communities, higher seas, air pollution and intolerable heat. Although some changes won’t be complete until the end of the century, some parks are already starting to turn for the worst:

• Rising temperatures in Yellowstone’s Firehole River were hot enough to kill as many as a thousand trout in 2007.

• Glaciers are already melting in parks that have them, including Denali, Mount Rainier and Yosemite. Experts predict that all glaciers in Glacier National Park will melt in the next 12 to 13 years.

Climate change has threatened the white-tailed ptarmigan, which lives in Rocky Mountain National Park. Photo By Christian Nunes/Courtesy Flickr. 

• Excessive water temperatures in Virgin Islands National Park have killed 50 percent of the coral in the park’s reefs since 2006.

• Mountaintop tundra areas are warming up earlier in Rocky Mountain National Park, which has been linked to a 50 percent decline in white-tailed ptarmigan, which live on the tundra year round.

• In Bandelier National Monument and Mesa Verde, 90 percent of pinon pines have died from drier conditions and a temperature increase.

Rising temperatures are creating intolerable heat in parks such as Saguaro National Park. Photo By Jason Corneveaux/Courtesy Flickr. 

The report also includes 32 recommendations of specific actions the U.S. National Park Service can take to protect the parks and their resources. Actions include using environmental education programs to inform park visitors about climate change and its impact on the parks, setting aside new national parks and expanding existing ones, and working with Congress for energy and climate legislation.

In the meantime, I’m going to try and get back to my favorite parks—and the ones I haven’t seen—before it’s too late.

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