Access Special Features, Register Now!
September 2007

National Parks Report Card

We surveyed more than 40 scientists, conservationists, and professional adventurers, then ranked the 15 parks that are most in peril from climate change.

The Everglades under water? Glacier and Rainier with no ice? If these sound like nightmare scenarios, consider this: Your backcountry is changing. And if global warming matches even conservative forecasts, your most prized wild places will be drastically altered–or worse. To determine which parks face the most peril, we surveyed more than 40 scientists, park personnel, conservationists, and professional adventurers, then pored over dozens of studies. Here, ranked in order of threat level, are the parks in which climate change, left unchecked, will cause the greatest damage to the terrain and scenery you treasure most.

A New Map of the World
Topos have long been a staple of safe backcountry travel. But they’ve failed to keep up with a changing planet.
By Bruce Barcott

During a recent bushwhack through the Alakai Swamp on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, my companions and I walked straight off the map. The Alakai is a gloriously dismal place, soggy and foggy and tangled with lehua trees, sword ferns, and eye-scratching brush. Our only guide was a USGS topo quad published at least two hurricanes prior to our arrival. Deep into our journey, our machete growing duller with every mile, we took a GPS reading and found our map had gone haywire. The paper showed a flat, swampy plain. Our eyes saw steep ridges and valleys. For a few seconds, the world spun in a swirl of disorientation and mild panic. Psychologists have a term for this: Cognitive dissonance brought on by a disconfirmed expectancy. Out in the field, we had our own way of putting it: We’re on our own, boys.

The world is now in the process of walking off the map. Global warming is changing the landscape beneath our feet. As you’ll learn in these pages, some glaciers are shrinking and others are disappearing entirely in alpine parks like Denali, Glacier, and Rainier. In the Rockies, the Cascades, the Alaska Range, and the Sierra, treeline marches steadily uphill. It’s one thing to talk about that in theory, quite another to encounter it on the ground.

In Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the maps show the northern lobe of the Bremner Icefield as a continuous ice sheet; yet members of a BACKPACKER team that hiked it instead found themselves on a lateral moraine bench, looking down hundreds of vertical feet to a series of silt deltas and large, quarter-mile-long lakes set in talus where the ice should have been. Coastlines are also changing, as the marine shoreline creeps ever inland. Stronger hurricanes reshape the Gulf Coast, and a rising sea threatens to swallow whole swaths of the Everglades.

As a backcountry traveler, I came of age in a world of absolutes. The rules were simple and few. Take extra food and water. Be ready for weather. When in doubt, check your map and compass. My companions and I consulted our trusted USGS topos like fundamentalists reading Scripture. The maps translated a chaotic mess of landscape into a beautiful language of thin contour lines and soft green, blue, and brown hues. The maps were almost always perfect and right.

Now they are turning into antiques. We’ll eventually see a new generation of updated topos, but it may take a good long while, and in the meantime we’re stuck with maps that grow more obsolete by the day. Our great field guides remain locked in time as the landscape around us moves on.

That day in the Alakai Swamp, we were forced to abandon our GPS coordinates and rely on our senses. We made our own way across the terrain, counting on eyes and ears to get us safely back home. As climate change remakes the landscape, that experience will become more common. Perhaps we can learn from the wildlife around us. Many biologists are expecting a gradual, massive wildlife migration–a poleward trek, as rising temperatures push existing ecosystems away from the equator. Researchers have already seen a northward shift in the winter range of birds around Cape Cod. Australia plans to establish a 1,700-mile wildlife corridor along its eastern coast to facilitate the movement of animal refugees driven south by global warming. Animals maintain their own sense-driven maps, and their cartography is shifting, too.

It’s unnerving to walk off the map. The compass and GPS assure us that we know where we are and we know where we’re going. At this point in history, we know where we are. We don’t know where we’re going. Or rather, we don’t know where the planet is going. Terra incognita is returning.

Expect a massive decline in bird and marine life this century, plus the submersion of many Wilderness Waterway campsites.
Of all the global warming computer models out there, the ones that show coastal Florida swamped by rising seas are among the hardest to digest. The animations look like a cinematic apocalypse, not cold, hard reality. But the math is simple enough. “Sixty percent of the park is less than 3 feet above sea level,” says superintendent Dan Kimball. And researchers are predicting that oceans could swell anywhere from 7 inches to several feet by 2100. In worst-case scenarios, “the Everglades are gone,” says Don Barry, executive vice president of the Wilderness Society and Assistant Interior Secretary under Bill Clinton. Even in less gloomy forecasts, the Glades, which form the largest protected mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere, will be seriously disrupted, the changes dramatically altering wildlife, fishing, and paddling.

A laundry list: Mangroves, which act as natural dikes that keep out swarms of sea water, may not be able to grow fast enough to keep up with the rising sea level. Warmer water could bleach coral reefs, effectively killing the ecosystems they create. Florida panthers and West Indian manatees could lose their habitats, as could rare pinelands. Hurricanes, which may occur more often, will bring higher storm surges that bloat the park with seawater.

Most notably, higher seas will assault the park’s freshwater environments, creating brackish marshes that push out species like American crocodiles and the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow. “The River of Grass should be flowing north to south,” says Jonathan Ullman, the Sierra Club’s regional representative. “With sea-level rise, it will start flowing south to north.” If that happens, says Harold Wanless, a University of Miami geologist, channels could turn into mangrove-choked creeks and brackish ponds–and campsites and chickees on the Wilderness Waterway could be inundated with saltwater.

A number of new projects–including the $11 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan–are in the works to correct past engineering and water-flow blunders. But no repair project can save the Glades if sea levels rise several feet.

It’s not just the ice: The park could lose its trout streams and wildlife, too.
It isn’t easy being a climate-change poster child. Glacier staffers have endured years of gallows humor arising from the park’s eventual loss of its namesake features. A typical recent example: The National Environmental Trust started a glib publicity-generating web campaign to rename Glacier. The worst part, of course, is that it’s true: In 1850, there were 150 glaciers; that number is now closer to 27. A 2003 article in BioScience by Dan Fagre, an ecologist at the USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center (see page 23), projects glacial extinction here by 2030. Of the park’s 84 watersheds, 18 have less than 1 percent of their glacial cover remaining–which makes Glacier the ultimate canary in the coal mine.

Changes are already on display for hikers. On the Grinnell Trail to the retreating Grinnell Glacier, the vistas are emptier, except for the upward-creeping treeline. But it’s not just about the dramatic “before” photos and the altered aesthetics of snowless summits. Glacial retreat has dire consequences because it makes for earlier spring runoff–no small thing when you consider that Triple Divide Peak is the headwaters of the Columbia, Missouri, and Saskatchewan River systems. On the middle fork of the Flathead River in March 2007, researchers measured the highest flow for that month in recorded history. Glaciers naturally shrink in summer, but when they start melting in February, that’s a problem. “We’ll start seeing streams warm up, then go ephemeral,” says Leigh Welling, director of Glacier’s Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center. Stream insects are highly sensitive to changes in water temps; if they perish, species like bull trout, whose eggs are also vulnerable to warm water, will see a critical food source disappear.

Perhaps the most catastrophic consequence of all this is the potential for longer fire seasons, with bigger and hotter burns. Experts say it’s already happening, because there’s less stream flow and water in the soil. Since 1987, the Western wildfire season has increased an average of 78 days, and the time lapse from discovering to controlling a fire has risen from 7.5 days to 37.1. In 2003, 145,000 acres burned in the park. And much of Glacier’s vegetation, such as old-growth cedar and hemlock, doesn’t rejuvenate after an aggressive blaze. “That wet, lush, cool habitat might not come back,” Thompson says.

As for the caribou, grizzly and other iconic mammals? They’ll likely head north to Canada’s cooler Waterton Park, leaving Glacier a mere echo of its former self. The mountains will remain–but not all that came with them. “That,” says Barry, “is the tragedy.”

Expect starker, emptier views and sketchier alpine routes as the most glaciated region in the Lower 48 passes its tipping point.
This park’s South Cascade Glacier has been more closely monitored than Alex Rodriguez’s fantasy stats. Ed Josberger, head of the USGS Ice and Climate Project in Tacoma, tracks its winter growth (with snow) and summer shrinkage (with melting). The oceanographer, who also follows Alaska’s Wolverine and Gulkana Glaciers (in the Kenai Mountains and Alaska Range, respectively), says all three have fluctuated historically. What worries him now? “They’re all retreating at the same time,” and have been since 1989. “That says to me that we have a bigger global problem.”

The 318 glaciers in North Cascades make up about 60 percent of the land covered by ice in the Lower 48. But the park has lost 46 percent of its coverage since 1900, says Andrew Fountain, a professor of geology at Portland State. And the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization reports that total ice mass has decreased by 80 percent. Many glaciers here are below 6,000 feet, in just-under-freezing air temps–which means they’re particularly vulnerable. With a 4°F rise, 75 percent of NCNP’s remaining ice could vanish over 40 years. South Cascade Glacier’s nose is receding 56 feet a year in places.

Page 1 of 612345...Last »

Leave a Reply