So, yeah, the news about the climate isn’t good, but we knew that. What we didn’t know was that national parks are warming at twice the rate of the rest of the United States—1.0º Celsius since 1895, on average, according to a new study by University of California, Berkeley, professor Patrick Gonzalez, and collaborators from the University of Wisconsin. The reason is that parks are located in the most sensitive landscapes, such as the Arctic, the Southwest, and at high altitude.
It’s not just increasing temperatures, either: Rainfall is decreasing faster in national parks than elsewhere. It’s dropped in 12 percent of national park lands, compared to 3 percent of the U.S. overall. And projections are grim. The U.S. Virgin Islands are expected to have 28 percent less rainfall by the end of the century.
As for projected temperature increases, buckle up. The study estimates that national parks will be 3º to 9º C hotter by the end of the century under the International Panel on Climate Change’s worst case global warming scenario. Under the best case, 58 percent of parks would increase another 2º compared to 22 percent of overall United States landmass.
Gonzalez is the lead climate change science for the National Park Service, though this study was conducted under the aegis of Cal-Berkeley.
“We are preserving the most remarkable ecosystems, and they happen to be in extreme environments,” he said, explaining the outsized impact on parks.
Even near-term projections are sobering. Glacier National Park could lose all its namesake ice within the next 12 years, and the total loss of all glacial ice in the Lower 48 is inevitable, scientists say, probably within decades. Joshua trees could disappear from Joshua Tree by 2100, and forested treasures like Yellowstone could end devastated from bark beetles, drought, and wildfires.
And much as the thought of Glacier without glaciers is depressing, the study stressed that parks are more than just aesthetic and recreational jewels: They harbor increasingly threatened plants and animals, they are critical sources of water, and they conserve carbon in their trees.
Photo by National Park Service