How Climate Change is Transforming Our Nation's Treasured Parks

With global warming upon us, scientists may need to use these sanctuaries as laboratories in which to play Noah, if not god.

Our skiff slips quietly past an indifferent crocodile and powers across a shallow bay. We're headed to Cape Sable at the southern tip of Florida, in Everglades National Park. The breeze is warm and moist; the sky soft with cottony clouds. Mangroves along the water's edge brace themselves -- and the coast -- by growing stilts. A trio of pelicans cruises above us, and the silver flash of a tarpon cuts the water's surface. "Eighty pounds," shouts the fisherman among us. And that's just a little one.

Our skipper, a weathered, gray-haired wildlife biologist named Oron "Sonny" Bass, spends as much time as he can out here amid the teeming life of Florida Bay. Has he ever been stranded? He laughs. Lots of times. He's learned to bring a mosquito suit, a gas stove, some coffee, and a 20-foot pole. That way, if his engine dies and he has to spend the night, he won't get eaten alive, he can have coffee in the morning, and he can use the pole to push toward home.

The first national parks were established for their scenery or their history, but in 1947 Congress placed Everglades National Park in the system for its biological bounty. Its 1.5 million acres sustain a rare combination of temperate and subtropical species -- orchids and oaks, flamingos and flickers, crocodiles and alligators.

Now, as warming air and oceans melt ice at the poles, a slow-moving tsunami of saltwater is headed toward the Everglades. A sea-level rise of three feet by 2100 (the high end of the range projected by the National Research Council) would inundate 60 percent of the park's lands. "We're incredibly vulnerable," says Everglades superintendent Dan Kimball.

Global warming has already had an impact on other natural treasures. Glacier National Park had 150 gla-ciers when it was founded in 1910. Now it has only 25, and they'll all be gone, or nearly so, by 2030; staffers joke about renaming it "Puddles National Park." The famed ice caves at Mt. Rainier have disappeared. Half the reef-building corals in Virgin Islands National Park have succumbed to bleaching and disease. Habitat is shrinking for high-elevation species such as pikas and alpine chipmunks in Yosemite and Great Basin. Heat and drought are helping bark and pine beetles kill broad swaths of forest in Bandelier and Rocky Mountain and fueling wildfires throughout the West.

Some 275 million people visited America's national parks in 2007. And part of what they came for -- the grand vistas, for instance -- will still be around for our children's grandchildren. But many plants and animals that inhabit the parks won't last that long. United Nations scientists say that 20 to 30 percent of Earth's species will be at risk of extinction by 2100 -- even if we reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions 80 percent by the middle of this century. Which species survive will depend in part on what actions humans take in the next few years.

I recently visited two of the most vulnerable national parks, Everglades and Glacier, to see what climate change has done so far and to ask what park managers and scientists intend to do about it. If the National Park Service is America's Noah, I wanted to see how the ark was coming along.

To get a good look at what climate change has wrought, there's no better vantage point than Glacier. Tucked away along Montana's Ca-nadian border, it's a heartthrob of a park, with dizzying snowcapped spires and glistening waterfalls. Its waters flow all the way to the Pacific, Hudson Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico, making it the "crown of the continent." A short stroll off Going-to-the-Sun Road can bring a visitor face-to-face with a mountain goat or a bighorn sheep. All of the West's big native carnivores are still here -- black bears, grizzlies, wolves, wolverines, cougars. But melting ice is the latest tourist attraction. The number of visitors rose by 20 percent between 2000 and 2007, in part because people want to behold the glaciers before they disappear.

One day in August 2008, the six-mile-long trail to Grinnell Glacier is packed with pilgrims: couples young and old, families with kids, even a mother nursing a swaddled baby. When park cofounder George Bird Grinnell was here in 1887, he saw a 1,000-foot wall of ice. Now the once-mighty glacier is 90 percent gone, and -- I hate to say it, because I have worked so hard to get here -- it looks like a half-frozen lake.

Even as it shrinks, Grinnell offers a chilling, otherworldly beauty: the ice is luminous, the water a brilliant turquoise. What's being lost, though, is a highly effective, 7,000-year-old water storage and delivery system. Twenty years from now, when Glacier's glaciers are gone, people and fish downstream will have less water -- especially in August, the arid West's cruelest month.

Roseate spoonbills, snowy egrets, and American white pelicans forage for food at Everglades National Park (left). "We need to restore the ecosystem," says park superintendent Dan Kimball (right). "We need to get the water right."

At high elevations, temperatures in Glacier have risen three times as fast as the global average. Spring starts up to 45 days earlier than it did in decades past. The fire season begins sooner and ends later. In the summer of 2003, more than 13 percent of the million-acre park went up in smoke. Winters are warmer now, bringing rain as well as snow.

If you walk the trails, you see meadows rimmed by trees that are hundreds of years old. On the edges, though, new trees are sprouting. A thick blanket of snow had kept trees out of these meadows for centuries. Expanding forests may sound like a good thing, but half an hour from a trailhead, I spot two potential victims of the trend: a couple of tawny grizzly bears on a sunny hillside about a football field away. One of the bears rears up on its hind legs to check out our group, but it soon goes back to scarfing berries. Such open slopes are food factories for wildlife, and as trees encroach, the berries can't grow.

Another source of bear food -- and a favorite of fishermen -- is the bull trout. It's not a real trout but a "char," a close relative that can grow 30 inches long and weigh 20 pounds. It prefers the coldest water of any North American fish, and some of its best remaining habitat lies just below the park's disappearing ice fields.

Glacier-based U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) biologist Clint Muhlfeld is trying to figure out exactly what the bull trout and other native fish will need to survive in a warmer world. A tall and fit former professional cyclist, Muhlfeld and his colleagues at the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center implant lightweight transmitters in fish to keep tabs on their migrations. Receiver in hand, Muhlfeld can stand on a rock in the middle of McDonald Creek and tell you whether one of his study subjects is hiding in the vicinity, and -- if it is -- its age and travel history.

At times he slips on a wetsuit, grabs a mask and snorkel, and jumps into the stream to see firsthand what kind of habitat the fish are using -- day and night, summer and winter. It's a cold swim for a good cause. An in-depth understanding of bull trout could help land managers throughout the Pacific Northwest create and maintain good habitats for the species as the climate changes.

For Muhlfeld and his colleagues, Glacier National Park is a superb laboratory. The nearly 20 years' worth of data that researchers have amassed here have filled in pieces of the climate-change puzzle for scientists worldwide. But when Glacier-based USGS ecologist Dan Fagre gives lectures these days, audiences are eager to hear about solutions. "Scientists have been caught a little flat-footed," Fagre told a Sierra Club Foundation group in August 2008. "We've been working so hard to get the data and understand the dynamics that we're just starting to work on what to do."

In search of solutions myself, I move on to Everglades National Park. It's the largest swath of wilderness east of the Rocky Mountains, full of nearly impenetrable mangrove forests and sawgrass prairies. Everyone I meet here has a scary story -- about jellyfish, hurricanes, alligators, pythons. But to Everglades National Park superintendent Dan Kimball, the scariest threat is climate change. A hydrologist, Kimball moved here from Colorado five years ago, and he's still marveling at the place's pancake profile. When news teams visit the park, he has them film next to a road sign that says rock reef pass, elevation 3 feet.

Most park superintendents have just begun to think about helping plant and animal species survive climate change. But Kimball already has a plan and is ready for action. For more than half a century, farms and cities have been usurping the park's freshwater flows. Today 90 to 95 percent of Everglades' wading birds are gone, and 66 of its species are on state or federal endangered lists. In 2000, Congress blessed a $10-billion-plus state and federal effort to restore the Everglades. But progress has been minimal. "We need to restore the ecosystem," Kimball says. "We need to get the water right -- quality, quantity, timing, and distribution. It's not a panacea, but it's certainly something we can do to increase the resiliency of the park's plants and animals."

Whether getting "the water right" will actually protect the park's flora and fauna depends on how much the sea level rises -- and how fast. University of Miami geologist Hal Wanless warns that the rapid melting of polar ice could cause a rise of five feet or more before the end of the century. If that happens, Kimball concedes that his best efforts could be swamped. If the seas rise more slowly, though -- like the one to three feet by 2100 predicted by a 2008 National Research Council report -- rejuvenated species might have the time and space to adapt.

In the meantime, Everglades scientists are mapping where some of the park's rare plants live, trying to figure out what conditions they need to survive: How much seawater flooding can they tolerate? How much freshwater do they need? In which seasons? "We need to find ways to help these species," says Dave Hallac, the park's chief biologist. "Which ones we help, how much we help, and how we provide that assistance is something we're still struggling with."

There was even talk among the Florida congressional delegation last year of building a climate-change science and education center in the Everglades. "You'd want to make sure it was elevated," Kimball says, smiling.

One morning Hallac offers to take me to a secret location. We start out walking across a coastal marsh on the edge of a subtropical forest. At first I think there's not much to see. Step by step, though, we find a red-shouldered hawk, swallow-tailed kites, cardinal air plants, prickly pear and barbed-wire cacti, wild cotton, and one of the most poisonous trees in the world, the manchineel.

Finally we reach a huge cowhorn orchid, perched on the waist-high limb of a dead buttonwood. Hundreds of its bright brown and yellow flowers sway above our heads on long, arching stalks. This species used to be so abundant that people hauled wagonloads of it out of the park in the early 20th century. Today it's rare, and park managers are considering a rescue effort. "Are we going to take seeds and try to propagate them in a garden?" Hallac muses. "Should we move them to higher elevations or to an area that will have some stability for the next 100 years?"

The cowhorn orchid's dilemma poses philosophical questions for the Park Service. Congress set aside the first national park, Yellowstone, in 1872 to preserve its land "in a natural condition." For many years the service has believed in letting nature take its course -- trying to make national parks a place where plants, animals, and natural processes (such as fires, floods, and avalanches) were protected from most kinds of human intervention. But now human intervention may be needed to combat human-caused climate change.

Just as soldiers need rest before battle, scientists are telling managers to make the parks as resilient as possible before the full brunt of climate change hits. That means reducing such ongoing stresses as water pollution, air pollution, invasive species, and the like. It also means protecting lands outside park boundaries and providing connecting corridors so vulnerable species can migrate as habitats evolve.

But what about more direct interventions? Should parks triage plants and animals, mounting rescue efforts for some and leaving others to die? Do park scientists and land managers know enough to do the right thing? Should they try to play Noah? God?

One person trying to answer such questions is Jon Jarvis, the Pacific West regional director who was nominated in July to lead the National Park Service. A trim former Boy Scout with an intense gaze and a big mustache, Jarvis is a biologist and 33-year agency veteran. Even before climate change was considered an acceptable topic in Washington, he was urging park supervisors who reported to him to reduce carbon emissions by scrapping gas-guzzlers, making buildings more energy-efficient, restoring forests, and generating their own solar and wind power.

Jarvis sees climate-change education as an urgent priority for the Park Service. "We have a site devoted to the Statue of Liberty. We have sites for civil rights, women's rights, Rosie the Riveter. We have Japanese internment sites, Flight 93, Oklahoma City." At each of those places, the Park Service helps the public understand key events in U.S. history. Climate change, Jarvis believes, is another turning point that needs to be highlighted -- this time as it happens.

The National Park Service doesn't have jurisdiction over enough land to save America's native plants and animals all by itself. The parks encompass only 84 million of a total of 650 million acres of U.S. public land. Still, Jarvis believes his agency can play a major role in confronting the challenge. "Parks are great places to monitor the effects of climate change," he says. "People can see that it is having a direct effect, which can help us rally the country. Parks can also be incubators for ideas about how we're going to manage natural resources in the future."

I ask Jarvis the Noah/God question. Would he, for instance, be willing to transplant a species to help it survive a loss of habitat caused by climate change? He takes a deep breath. Not yet, he says. "Before we get to the point of manipulating the environment, we've got some research to do. But if it turns out that the best way to save a species is to move it around, and we do it conservatively and cautiously with the best scientific information, then . . . " He pauses again and lowers his voice. "I'm ready."

As the waves splash against our skiff at Cape Sable, Everglades biologist Hallac shows me a brackish marsh that has the potential to be one of the park's most productive crocodile nesting areas. A dam that kept saltwater out of the marsh has failed, and park officials want to repair it -- a restoration effort that could prove fruitless if sea levels rise too fast. Still, Hallac wants to go ahead. "If we can shut off the saltwater here and allow this area to recover somewhat over the next 10 to 15 years," he says, "maybe the crocodile can expand its population and maybe even move up the coast a bit before we see major changes."

That's an optimistic scenario, but plans built on optimism are common, perhaps necessary, in the Everglades. Without them, worst-case, gloom-and-doom scenarios lead to despair and inaction. At dusk I sit at Paurotis Pond as an alligator glides by and hundreds of egrets, wood storks, white ibis, and roseate spoonbills fly into the dark limbs of the forest. If I lived here, and saw such sights every day, how could I choose anything but optimism?


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