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    Climate Change Impacts in National Parks

    By Erin Cassidy, AccuWeather staff writer
    September 30, 2013, 6:34:45 AM EDT

    Did you know that the United States was the first country to create a National Park? Yellowstone National Park, created in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant, was the world’s first national park. The U.S. National Park system has 401 areas covering over 84 million acres in every state and territory. National Parks serve as refuges for wildlife, provide recreation areas for humans and preserve the natural areas for future generations. Unfortunately, many of our iconic National Parks are being impacted by climate change and extreme weather. Here are just a few examples:

    Yellowstone National Park: Higher temperatures in Yellowstone have led to reduced snowpack, earlier spring snowmelt and uneven water levels in rivers and streams. Glaciers in the mountains are shrinking in size and warmer conditions have resulted in increased wildfire frequency in the park.

    Climate change is also believed to be a factor in the spread of the mountain pine beetle, which attacks white bark pine trees that are dominant in the highest elevation forests. Due to beetle infestation, 46 percent of Yellowstone’s white bark pine trees suffered mortality in 2009. Loss of white bark pines has a domino effect: grizzly bears depend on white bark pine seeds to prepare for hibernation. A decrease in this food source has led to a higher number of interactions and problems between grizzlies and humans. Other wildlife are feeling impacts, too – decreasing snowpack and hotter summers are a threat to the native cold water trout, affecting fishing seasons in the park.


    Yosemite National Park: As temperatures are getting warmer, melting of the Sierra snowpack is occurring earlier. Lyell Glacier and other glaciers are shrinking. Winter precipitation has been falling as rain instead of snow. Animals living at high elevations, like the pika, are experiencing range contractions, whereas low-elevation species are expanding their ranges upwards. Fire suppression has also changed forest density and species composition, replacing fire-tolerant trees with fire-sensitive trees. The increased forest density increases tree mortality due to drought, because a higher number of trees leads to competition for soil moisture. High temperatures and drought are increasing the risk of wildfires such as the RIM fire, which has consumed over 250,000 acres of forest with an estimated cost of 113 million dollars.

    Acadia National Park: Acadia has ground-level ozone levels that exceed air quality standards. Hotter temperatures promote the formation of ozone in the area. Ozone, a respiratory irritant that can affect the health of tourists and animals in the park, is known to reduce growth in white pine as measured by tree rings. The park is also experiencing a shorter winter season which affects snow cover and snowmelt, having a direct effect on ecosystems and tourism activities. In the past century, the amount of rainfall and heavy storms has increased over 60 percent in the Northeast, affecting roads, trails and unique carriage roads. Carriage roads were constructed under the supervision of John D. Rockefeller and are important to the history of the park. Acadia is also a hotspot for atmospheric mercury deposition and accumulation. Mercury can be found in all levels of the food chain and it can lead to slower growth rates in species such as the tree swallow.

    Rocky Mountain National Park: Milder winters in Rocky Mountain National Park are putting pressure on cold-weather wildlife. White-tailed ptarmigans depend on deep snow to survive and due to earlier and warmer springs, their offspring are hatching earlier. Premature hatchlings are vulnerable to low food supplies and temperature swings, which has resulted in a population decline. Warming temperatures also present a threat to wildflowers in the Park by impacting the timing of their blooming season. As with other parks, Rocky Mountain National Park has seen shifts in species distribution due to higher temperatures. For example, the low elevation Douglas fir has been documented at higher elevations.

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