Will climate change stop people from visiting America’s national parks?

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After Hurricane Sandy hit Assateague Island National Seashore in 2012, parts of the park's Bayside Picnic Area and nearby parking were swept out to sea with the rising waters and storm surge. A new study issued by climate specialists with the National Park Service projects how rising temperatures fed by climate change could affect the park system's visitorship for years to come. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/Flickr

After Hurricane Sandy hit Assateague Island National Seashore in 2012, parts of the park’s Bayside Picnic Area and nearby parking were swept out to sea with the rising waters and storm surge. A new study issued by climate specialists with the National Park Service projects how rising temperatures fed by climate change could affect the park system’s visitorship for years to come. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service/Flickr

A new study in the journal PLOS ONE explores how climate change and warming temperatures could alter how many people visit U.S. national parks.

Roughly 80 percent of parks already are experiencing extremely warm conditions, says Nicholas Fisichelli, an ecologist for the National Parks Service’s climate adaptation team and the study’s lead author. These warming conditions often translate to extended seasons for the national parks. That means more people may want to see the parks, but it also could mean that the park trails, infrastructure and natural resources could face more wear and tear from increased visitor traffic.

For this study, Fisichelli and other researchers compiled 10 years of available visitation data from 340 national parks. That included at least 8,000 annual visits from 1979 to 2013.

After comparing these historical visitor rates with average monthly temperatures, the researchers then projected the number of potential future visits between 2041 and 2060 to see how projected rising temperatures might influence future attendance.

Some parks would likely see an increase in visitorship with rising temperatures — those locations lie primarily in the northern reaches of the United States, such as Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska, Acadia National Park in Maine and the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

But hotter weather in places that already are naturally warm, such as Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida, would actually become so uncomfortable that visitorship would decrease, Fisichelli said. According to this study, the tipping point is when the average monthly temperature reaches about 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

The idea for the study surfaced last spring, after the researchers corresponded with park managers to discuss how climate change was impacting the parks and how best to respond.

“You may not be able to achieve your [attendance] goals the way you could in the old days with a changing climate,” said Gregor Schuurman, an ecologist on the NPS Climate Change Response program and one of the study’s authors. “If you’re going to have a productive visitors season, you can’t ignore a melting glacier or flooding access road.”

Combined, America’s national parks offer significant value, especially for neighboring towns. In 2013 alone, they attracted 273 million visits, sustained 238,000 jobs and brought $14.6 billion in tourist dollars to local communities, the study said.

Several parks already are trying out new infrastructure and staffing strategies in order to adapt to the demands of climate change.

Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland is one of them. Sitting at current sea level and with predictions of rising ocean waters and more powerful storm surges for years to come as a result of climate change, the park has little choice, says Bill Hulsander, the park’s chief of resources management.

“It’s something that’s in the forefront of our minds at Assateague almost on a daily basis,” Hulsander said.

After Hurricane Sandy struck the eastern U.S. coastline in October 2012, parking lot spaces on Assateague Island were swept into the ocean while four feet of sand buried other parts of the park, he said.

This fall, the park plans to launch mobile infrastructure, such as bathrooms and changing stations, as well as using crushed clamshells to create new parking space. That way, in the event of a hurricane, park staff can transport these items to the mainland, and don’t have to worry about parking lot asphalt drifting into the waters off Assateague Island.

“We need less of a place-based approach for infrastructure,” Huslander said. “We’re trying to allow this island to move as it wants to move or needs to move to keep pace with rising sea level.”

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