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Climate Change Impacts on the National Park System

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Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the NPS

The National Park System (NPS) is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The system, established in 1916, was created to preserve some of the greatest natural wonders in the United States for generations to come.

Sequoia National Park

In 1890, the nation set aside approximately 49,000 acres of land that became known as the Sequoia National Park because it housed some of the largest trees on earth — sequioadendron giganteum or giant sequoia’s. Today, the Sequoia National Park covers more than 400,000 acres but concern is growing for the trees that have been protected for a hundred years. The concern centers around global warming, which is impacting these forests through rising temperatures and drought conditions.

A decrease in snowpack in the Sierras, coupled with drier conditions across the region, has significantly increased the number and danger of wildfires, while decreasing water availability to the trees during summer months. Older trees are already experiencing dieback due to the drought conditions, and with just 65 sequoia groves in the world, and most of them in this region, climate change impacts could have devastating consequences.

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Climate change impacts

Sequoia National Park is just one of 59 national parks and 352 other historical sites, including monuments, battlefields, and trails. All of them are at risk for climate change impacts, and, as there is at least one in every state, each state is likely to feel the changes.

Glaciers are drying up, temperatures are rising and permafrost is thawing – destroying archeological sites. Also, increased extreme weather events and natural disasters – coupled with sea-level rise – are damaging historic monuments, often due to flooding, such as the Statue of Liberty during Hurricane Sandy.

Extended seasons and a rising number of visitors

That’s not all. Warmer temperatures are driving people to the park earlier in the year, and also extending the season, creating new challenges for park rangers and how they manage camping sites and facilities.

NPS research indicates a 13- to 31-day growth in the average season, and has already seen a significant increase in its shoulder seasons, early spring and late fall. While these changes could have a positive impact on local economies, the uptick in visitors and lengthened seasons requires an adjustment to accommodate people while still preserving the natural environment.

“Conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” — National Park System Mission.

Research and scenario planning

The continuous changes – rising sea levels and its impact on Everglades National Park, and the impact of higher temperatures on the Grand Canyon – are just a few of the issues NPS researchers will be focusing on in the coming months. They also plan to record cultural resources that are likely to disappear due to climate change impacts.

Most significantly, scenario planning will help them map out a variety of paths to address different situations that may evolve or occur, helping them be better prepared. Such planning allows them to incorporate a variety of mitigation and adaptation efforts into their planning now to avoid negative future outcomes.

NPS rangers are hoping that the research will show them how to make adjustments that will allow them to preserve the parks according to its mission statement which seeks to ensure the parks are still viable for generations to come.

Educating the public is a crucial role for park rangers

Park rangers also realize their crucial role in helping to educate the public regarding climate change. Visitors to the park will be able to experience firsthand the affects of climate change when rangers point to the visible impacts it has on these natural resources.

Hopefully, their efforts will help preserve this great natural resource for every American for generations to come.

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Kimberly Arsenault serves as an intern at the Cleveland/Bradley County Emergency Management Agency where she works on plan revisions and special projects. Previously, Kimberly spent 15 years in commercial and business aviation. Her positions included station manager at the former Midwest Express Airlines, as well as corporate flight attendant, inflight manager, and charter flight coordinator. Kimberly currently holds a master's degree in emergency and disaster management from American Public University.

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