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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Parks Stewardship Forum

UC Berkeley

Human-caused climate change in United States national parks and solutions for the future


Human-caused climate change has exposed the US national park area to more severe increases in heat and aridity than the country as a whole and caused widespread impacts on ecosystems and resources. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions from cars, power plants, and other human sources would reduce future risks. Since 1895, annual average temperature of the area of the 419 national parks has increased at a rate of 1.0 ± 0.2ºC (1.8 ± 0.4ºF) per century, double the rate of the US as a whole, while precipitation has declined significantly on 12% of national park area, compared with 3% of the US. This occurs because extensive areas of national parks are located in extreme environments. Scientific research in national parks has detected numerous changes that analyses have attributed primarily to human-caused climate change. These include a doubling of the area burned by wildfire across the western US, including Yosemite National Park, melting of glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park, a doubling of tree mortality across the western US, including Sequoia National Park, a loss of bird species from Death Valley National Park, a shift of trees onto tundra in Noatak National Preserve, sea level rise of 42 cm (17 in.) near the Statue of Liberty National Monument, and other impacts. Without emissions reductions, climate change could increase temperatures across the national parks, up to 9ºC (16ºF) by 2100 in parks in Alaska. This could melt all glaciers from Glacier National Park, raise sea level enough to inundate half of Everglades National Park, dissolve coral reefs in Virgin Islands National Park through ocean acidification, and damage many other natural and cultural resources. Adaptation measures, including conservation of refugia in Joshua Tree National Park and raising heat-resistant local corals in Biscayne National Park, can strengthen ecosystem integrity. Yet, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from human activities is the only solution that prevents the pollution that causes climate change. Energy conservation and efficiency improvements, renewable energy, public transit, and other actions could lower projected heating by two-thirds, reducing risks to our national parks.

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