What is Joshua Tree National Park without Joshua trees or Glacier National Park without glaciers? These are realities we might have to face within this century, according to a new study that shows how our national parks are disproportionately susceptible to climate change.
The paper, which analyzed data from 1895 to 2010, cites some startling statistics. The most disturbing: average annual temperatures in the national parks increased twice as fast as in the rest of the country. Additionally, despite the U.S. as a whole actually seeing a rise in precipitation, rain and snowfall have decreased substantially within national parks.
“The national parks conserve the most intact ecosystems in the country, and they also provide for human well being,” says Patrick Gonzalez, a climate scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author of the study. “Our research confirms that reducing carbon pollution from cars, power plants, and other human sources can save our national parks from the worst results of heat.”
The study warns that if we don’t cut emissions, warming could increase up to six times faster in national parks by the end of the century. That amounts to temperatures as many as 16 degrees higher in certain areas by 2100—enough, the paper theorizes based on prior research, to wipe out 90 percent of trees in Joshua Tree National Park, increase burn areas by as much as tenfold in Yellowstone, and kill off all the pika in Lassen Volcanic National Park. That warming would likely also, as one study co-author notes, completely melt Glacier National Park’s signature features.
The reason the national parks are being hit hardest by climate change is a matter of location. Most of the area covered by the 417 park units sits at high latitudes and high elevations, where warming occurs more quickly, thanks to the thinner atmosphere and reflective snow cover that melts faster. A good portion of those protected places are also located in the arid Southwest, which has seen record low rainfall.
Despite the data, Gonzalez remains positive. He notes that cutting greenhouse emissions to match those laid out by the Paris Agreement could reduce warming by up to two-thirds, shielding the parks from the worst effects of the heat. These targets aren’t out of reach—a recent study suggested that the goals established in Paris are achievable. Case in point: Gonzalez cites the 16 states and Puerto Rico that make up the U.S. Climate Alliance and that have committed to keep to the Paris accords, despite the country’s withdrawal from the agreement. Together, these states have cut emissions by 15 percent since 2005 and are on track to meet their goals.
“We don’t need exotic technology to make this happen, what’s lacking is the implementation,” Gonzalez says. “The key is to take action now. The later we head down that road, the less chance we have of saving the parks.”