Parks face changes from climate change, tourists, pandemic

Charlotte Tomlin

Icy glaciers, rolling greens, roaring geysers, towering trees, sandy beaches and sleeping volcanoes come together to celebrate the United States’ most beautiful areas in the form of national parks. Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park, Yosemite National Park, Zion National Park and Grand Teton National Park are among the most well-known national parks in the U.S.

Many ESD community members have traveled to numerous national parks, reveling in their beauty.

“I have been to Big Bend National Park, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Rocky Mountains National Park,” Eddie Eason, director of Outdoor Education said. “Picking a favorite [park] is like asking a parent to pick a favorite child. Each is a favorite in its own way. [But] If I had to pick one to go to, it would be the Rocky Mountains because of the scenery and my love of the mountains.”

As the world’s climate constantly changes, the National Park Service (NPS) continues to adapt to obstacles posed by climate change. In 2010, the NPS introduced the Climate Change Response Strategy, which describes four components to address climate change: science, adaptation, mitigation and communication. In the response strategy, then director Jonathan B. Jarvis expressed his concerns about climate change.

“I believe climate change is fundamentally the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks that we have ever experienced,” Jarvis said. “Current science confirms the planet is warming and the effects are here and now.”

In many national parks, climate change has disrupted the environment. Climate change exposes the national parks to severely hotter and drier conditions. This drastic change in climate can be seen in Alaska, where 63 percent of all national park area is located. Melting snow in Alaska uncovers darker surfaces that absorb more heat, a destructive cycle that has no foreseeable end.

“I went on a Moondance trip to Alaska last summer,” junior Marguerite Davis said. “We hiked nine miles on glaciers, and I saw a lot of melted snow. I guess I was expecting [Alaska] to be covered with snow, but that wasn’t the case.”

Not to mention, national parks are a fundamental part of the U.S. ecosystem. They hold vast amounts of watersheds, replenishing drinking water and an abundance of trees to soak up carbon dioxide. However, the production of carbon dioxide is accelerating faster than trees can absorb. This leads to high temperatures as the ozone layer depletes, allowing for more heat to impact the Earth. Glacier National Park, in Montana, is one example of the impact of climate change. Glaciers are rapidly shrinking as the planet grows warmer, and human-started wildfires have destroyed the flora in Glacier National Park.

“When I went to Glacier this past summer, there was a part that we drove through that had no trees,” sophomore Stephen Swann said. “They’d been burned in a wildfire a couple years ago. It was really sad to see how much of the park had been destroyed by the fire.”

Yellowstone National Park, famous for its iconic bison and Old Faithful, is another example of a national park being impacted by climate change. Droughts and wildfires have thinned the forests of Yellowstone, and scientific projections show that fires burn more frequently than before. Additionally, Yellowstone faces another threat to its environment: the rise of bark beetles. Usually killed by the winter cold, bark beetles feast on the trees. However, with the extending warmer season, the beetles can feast on the trees for longer periods of time and in larger numbers. The warming climate not only affects bark beetles, but also other animals in Yellowstone. The transforming ecosystem may force the famous bison and other animals away from the park.

“I visited Yellowstone in 2019,” Swann said. “It was a really cool experience, we arrived early in the morning and waited for the geyser, Old Faithful, to erupt. After the geyser erupted, a stampede of wild bison paraded across the valley. Then, we went on a little drive across the park to find wildlife and look at the hot springs. I’ll never forget seeing the bison stampede across the valley.”

Many other national parks are witnessing the devastation of climate change firsthand, harming native ecosystems. Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s average summer visibility has decreased up to 80 percent since the 1950s due to lower air quality caused by climate change. Many other national parks will experience loss of ice, snow pack and water due to changes in weather patterns and increase in evaporation. As a result, water may be lost and spring flood cycles may change, impacting the lives of many animals in the parks. Coastal parks may experience stronger storms and flooding, yet inland parks may see more downpours and droughts. Furthermore, important wildlife communities may become endangered or lost as changes in weather and temperatures, increased quantities of fires in once fire-free areas and a larger number of invasive species, like the bark beetles, may wipe out important organisms and unique ecosystems.

“I honestly don’t know that much about how climate change has affected national parks,” visitor of many national parks junior Grace Exall said. “I do know that there have been increases in forest fires recently and every park we drove through had huge amounts of dead trees that had been burned. Also there was a lot of human pollution in the parks so I think that has increased as well.”

Moreover, increasing water temperatures and influx of invasive species will most likely deplete native game fish populations, to the point where recreational fishing will become almost impossible. In some national park rivers, recreational fishing has already been prohibited. Additionally, higher ocean levels may cause parks with lower elevations, like Everglades National Park in Florida, to be flooded with sea water. Some wildlife that live in the park cannot survive in saltwater, and thus will be pushed out of the area that has been flooded with rising sea levels. As a result, some historical and cultural resources may be lost.

I believe climate change is fundamentally the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks that we have ever experienced.

Jonathon Jarvis, former NPS director

However, climate change is not the only thing affecting national parks. Covid-19 has affected the lives of many national park employees. Dustin Stone, who worked at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, lived full time in Skagway, Alaska. Skagway does not have a full-time doctor nor a hospital, adding to Stone’s concern about the pandemic and how his many interactions with tourists at the park would affect his susceptibility to getting Covid-19. In an interview with the Washington Post, Stone addressed his concerns.

“I’ve lived here year-round through eight flu seasons, and I’ve seen how quickly an infection can spread,” Stone said. “When one of us gets sick, most get sick.”

Stone is one of many national park employees that quit their job after national parks stayed open during the pandemic. Employees expressed fears and anger about the spread of infection after national parks stayed open during the pandemic. Currently, the NPS is requiring every visitor to wear a mask indoors and outdoors, regardless of vaccination status. Many national parks have changed their visitation hours to regulate the spread of Covid-19.

During the pandemic, many visitors of national parks disregarded the reprieve that national parks provide, and instead began to trash the national parks. Litter and trash accumulated along the sides of many trails, and graffiti appeared on much of the trees and rocks in the parks. Ellie Mora, a frequent visitor to Santa Paula Canyon in Southern California, commented on the state of the parks in an interview with TIME magazine in 2020.

“It’s been decimated by people who have never hiked before, coming back there with no morals,” Mora said. “It’s insane to see people acting the way they have, like the end of the world.”

However, despite all of the impending threats of climate change to the national parks and change in policy regarding the population’s health, national parks remain a great testament to the beauty of the U.S.

“I hope everyone gets the opportunity to visit a national park at least once in their life,” Swann said. “I’d really like to visit Big Bend National Park or the Grand Canyon. It gives you such a great opportunity to connect with nature and experience the beauty of the U.S. It’s a life changing experience.”

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