Planning for Climate Change: a Focus for the NPS
By Katherine Waser | The University of Arizona | August 12, 2009
The protected areas in the National Park System (NPS) include representative examples of all the nation’s ecosystems and biomes. These parklands, which comprise some of the most intact natural landscapes in our nation, are dynamic systems. Climate has fundamentally shaped them all through interactions of temperature and precipitation acting on daily, decadal, and millennial scales.
Pinyon pines in Bandelier National Monument as they once were in the Summer of 2002.
Image provided by: Holly Hartmann, Sustainability of semi-Arid Hydrology and Riparian Areas.
Now, the parklands are being increasingly redefined by climate change. The glaciers in Glacier National Park, for example, are projected to melt by 2030; Joshua trees may disappear entirely from Joshua Tree National Park as rising temperatures eliminate the winter cold they require and increase the occurrence of wildfires that kill them. Other changes have been well documented in parks across the nation.
Furthermore, climate change is not just “one more stressor,” to be added to the list of four other human-caused disturbances identified as major factors in changing park conditions (altered disturbance regimes, habitat fragmentation and loss, invasive species, and pollution). Instead, climate change is likely to interact with all of these other stressors in a way that greatly increases their impact. Thus, it is an underlying stressor that needs to be considered in all planning and management activities that the NPS undertakes from now on.
In short, the NPS is developing new management strategies to cope with a future of highly unpredictable and uncontrollable events as climate change continues. The challenge is as much cultural and intellectual as it is ecological, and it must be met by engaging all levels of the NPS.
In terms of NPS natural resources management, the first step in dealing with climate change is to move away from traditional management strategies and goals that were based on the assumption that the climate would remain stable. To be sure, many familiar, science-based principles—identifying what is at risk, defining baselines for what “unimpaired” means, deciding appropriate scales at which to manage, and setting measurable targets of protection—will continue to be useful. But the NPS must also develop new management strategies that increase ecosystems’ resilience—that is, their ability to recover from and adapt to the impacts of a changing climate—over the next several decades.