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Climate Change and the National Parks


Glacier National Park, Montana
© backpackphotography via Flickr

Certain gases will trap heat within the Earth's atmosphere, also known as the Greenhouse Effect, and carbon dioxide (CO2) is the principle greenhouse gas. Without it, the average temperature of our planet would be well below freezing, but with a small fraction, the planet’s average temperature is about 60° F. Unfortunately, due to industrialization and daily habits, more and more CO2 is being added to the atmosphere which is warming the planet. This can and will have devastating effects to the Earth, affecting ecosystems, biodiversity, and of course, the national parks. Take some time to understand climate change and how you can make a positive impact.

Driving Climate Change

Global warming increases the temperature of the land, sea, and atmosphere but many refer to this as global climate change, since there are many complicated factors involved. While rising temperatures is the main factor affecting climate there are other climate drivers to consider:

  • Temperature: Includes the annual average, but the daily high and low temperatures, onset warm spring temperatures, and the delay of the first frost.
  • Sea Level Rise: Polar ice caps are melting causing the sea level to rise.
  • Evaporation and Precipitation: Where there is heat, there is increased evaporation which changes precipitation patterns. This will lead to increased rainfall in some locations of the world, and increased drought in others.
  • Snowfall and Snowcover: Increased temperature can limit snowfall, drive the snowline further up a mountain, or melt it more rapidly once it falls. Changes in snow cover are especially important as the snow reflects more solar radiation and helps keep land cooler.
  • Sea Ice and Glaciers: Ice on the land also cools the planet by reflecting more solar energy back into the atmosphere.
  • Streamflow: Glaciers, snow, and rainfall produce water that flows through streams, lakes, and rivers. Changes to these waterways will have critical impacts to life.
  • Growing Season: Changes in temperature, precipitation, and moisture will affect plants and when they grow.
  • Extreme Events: Though difficult to predict, many climate models predict greater swings in future weather.


The national parks and other protected areas were set up to safeguard a wide range of plant and animal life, assuming a certain set of climate conditions. But as the climate drivers noted above change, the natural ecosystem and human use of that landscape will also change. Even subtle shifts in climate can create significant changes. If we do not act now we can expect many problems in these protected areas, from increased forest fires to declining wildlife populations.

National Parks Are Going Green

The national parks are taking climate change into consider by developing the following green practices (provided by the National Park Service):

  1. Purchasing energy efficient products, such as ENERGY STAR® approved office equipment and light bulbs and provide guidelines for reducing energy consumption.
  2. Converting to renewable energy sources such as solar or wind generated power.
  3. Developing and utilizing "green" designs for construction of new or remodeled buildings.
  4. Providing alternative transportation options for within-park commuting for staff and visitors, such as shuttle services or another form of alternate transportation for travel to and within the park.
  5. Purchasing hybrid electric or propane-fueled vehicles for official use.
  6. Using teleconferences or other forms of modern technology in place of travel to conferences and meetings.
  7. Engaging partners and enlist their support (e.g., tribal neighboring agencies, private land-holders) in climate change discussions, responses, and mitigation.
  8. Developing management guidelines for managing uncertainty surrounding climate change effects in parks. Incorporating anticipated climate change impacts, such as decreases in lake levels or changes in vegetation and wildlife, into management plans.
  9. Actively engage in research and scientific study in parks.
  10. Designing work projects around renewable energy, moving away from projects that rely solely on fossil fuel-based transportation and infrastructure.
  11. Providing recycling options for solid waste and trash generated within the park.
  12. Initiating restoration efforts as a means for enhancing species ability to cope with stresses and adapt to climatic and environmental changes. Through restoration of natural areas, we can lessen climate change impacts on species and their habitats. These efforts will help preserve biodiversity, natural resources, and recreational opportunities.
  13. Restoring and conserving connectivity within habitats, protecting and enhancing instream flows for fish, and maintaining and developing access corridors to climate change refugia. Restoring natural hydrologic functions of coastal wetlands to help protect coastal areas against hurricanes and flooding.
  14. Posting climate change information in easily accessible locations such as on bulletin boards and websites.
  15. Training park employees and partners on the effects of climate change on resources.
  16. Incorporating climate change research and information into interpretive products and making staff available to help visitors make the connection between reducing greenhouse gas emissions and resource stewardship.

How You Can Help

The choices we make everyday affect the environment. For example, we burn fossil fuels for electricity, heating, transportation, and food production, which releases CO2 into the atmosphere. And by now you understand that if we continue to increase CO2, we will continue to increase global average temperatures and cause further changes in global climate. This will have a negative impact on vegetation, wildlife, oceans, water resources, and human populations. The most important thing that we can all do is reduce our emissions. Check out the following ways to reduce your emissions and help save the national parks:

  • Before you leave for a trip, turn down your heating/cooling systems and lower the setting on your water heater. Be sure to turn off all lights or at least put them on a timer. If you are concerned about safety, use motion sensors on porch lights.
  • Drive your most efficient vehicle to parks. If you own a camper or RV, install solar panels so you won’t have to use a generator as often.
  • Use refillable travel mugs and water bottles.
  • Use an alternative form of travel to get around in the park. Many parks offer shuttle buses, as well as opportunities to bike and walk.
  • Recycle! You can save hundreds of pounds of CO2 by recycling half of the waste your vacation creates.
  • If you do drive into the park, do not idle your vehicle. Letting a car idle for just 20 seconds burns more gasoline than turning it off and on again.
  • Give feedback to the park! Parks wants to hear your ideas on how to mitigate our greenhouse gas emissions. If you have a suggestion, don’t keep it to yourself. Leave a comment form at the Visitor Center.
  • Practice these steps at home, not just at the parks.
  • Calculate your carbon footprint. Once you know your carbon footprint you can track your savings and get involved in programs that allow you to buy carbon credits to offset the carbon emissions from your visit.


The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has collected a list of Possible Impacts on Fish and Wildlife in the United States and the U.S. Forest Service has published two atlases on the potential redistribution of Trees and Birds due to global climate change.

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