Study: 1/4 of national park land vulnerable to climate change shifts

Mount Rainier National Park (Washington), which has been identified as highly vulnerable to climate change effects.

Credit: Emily Brouwer (NPS), flickr

Research illustrates both the severe negative effects climate change could have on national parks and the potential of certain landscapes to act as refuges.

A 2014 report determined that up to one-quarter of the total land area of national parks is vulnerable to the effects of plant and animal life moving north and upslope to escape the heat and other effects of a changing climate.

However, up to one-half of the National Park System is less vulnerable to climate change, containing biodiversity and intact habitat such that conditions remain relatively constant within their borders even in times of environmental upheaval. These wild spots, called “refugia,” are an important tool in helping species adapt to a warming world, and must be a focus of conservation efforts.

“We already established that climate change and habitat loss affect national parks, but this scientific study links these negative effects and identifies just how much of the landscape is at risk,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis in a press release from the agency. “The good news is that the study also identified areas of biodiversity that are refuges and wellsprings for species.”

Report authors produced a map showing which areas in the U.S. have the highest potential for vegetation shifts (or vulnerability to climate change), shown in red:

The report indicates that climate change refugia might be found in parks far from development, like Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and California’s Death Valley National Park. Meanwhile, Washington’s North Cascades and Mount Rainier national parks are highly vulnerable areas.

In May 2014, a report found that notable historic, cultural and natural sites around the country--including Alaska’s Bering Land Bridge National Preserve and Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands, part of which overlaps with Everglades National Park--could be damaged or displaced by the effects of sea level rise, coastal erosion, flooding, heavy rain and more intense wildfires.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in August, 2014.

See also: 

Read about work we are doing on climate change adaptation in different ecosystems

How climate change is devastating wildlands and the wildlife that rely on them