Climate Change Risks Close to Home

Two reports published this summer on the risks of climate change are particularly relevant to National Park Service (NPS) concessioners. The first presents the results of a study by NPS scientists assessing climatic trends for 289 natural resource national parks from 1901 to 2012. The second discusses the economic risks of climate change across the United States. Together, these reports bring awareness to the potential impacts to business that NPS concession operations may experience.

The NPS study, Climate Exposure of US National Parks in a New Era of Change, shows that parks are “overwhelmingly at the extreme warm end of historical temperature distributions.” This means that parks’ annual mean temperatures, as well as minimum temperatures during the coldest months and mean temperatures during the warmest months, have been extremely (>95th percentile) warm over the past 10 to 30 years, when compared to all climates experienced since 1901. This warming trend is expected to continue into the 21st century, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The study highlights individual parks that are climatically extreme relative to their historic range of climate variability, including Mammoth Cave National Park, Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, Niobrara National Scenic River, and Fort Larned National Historic Site. Summaries of results for all parks included in the study are available from the Inventory and Monitoring Program.

With precipitation, the results are more variable. Individual parks that are extreme relative to their historic range of precipitation include Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site (NHS), an extremely dry park, and Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park (NHP), an extremely wet park. However, Pu’ukohola Heiau NHS’s precipitation levels remain relatively constant from year to year whereas Chesapeake & Ohio Canal NHP demonstrates high annual variability in precipitation. Other parks experiencing extremes include Lake Mead National Recreation Area and Mojave National Preserve, both with very warm and dry climates. Conversely, Cape Lookout National Seashore, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, and Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument are experiencing extreme warm and wet conditions. The study’s authors say these examples “may offer insights for understanding how park resources are responding to ongoing changes in climate.”

When the NPS report was released, NPS Director Jonathan B. Jarvis noted, “[It] shows that climate change continues to be the most far-reaching and consequential challenge ever faced by our national parks.” An awareness of these changing conditions – increased drought, flooding and other extreme events - compels park managers to consider how climate change might impact not only natural resources but also cultural and historical resources, visitors and facilities. With rapidly retreating glaciers – 30% surface area loss over the past 30 years – at Olympic National Park and clean-up from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy still underway at Gateway National Recreation Area, park managers are already experiencing these impacts firsthand.

Over the next few decades and into the next century, temperatures and weather conditions are expected to become more uncomfortable and unpredictable for park visitors and staff at certain times of the year. The resources visitors come to see, such as glaciers, vegetation and wildlife, are expected to change, and facilities may be strained in terms of energy use, flood risk, and water availability. These impacts may extend to concessions operations and the visitor experience, highlighting need to also understand the economic risks from climate change.

Whereas the environmental risks from climate change such as sea level rise and extreme weather events are widely addressed, the economic risks resulting from these impacts have been largely absent from the conversation. The second report, Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States, seeks to fill that gap. The report presents a comprehensive, region-based assessment, identifying threats such as damage to coastal property and infrastructure from rising sea levels and increased storm surge, changes in energy demand, and the stress of higher temperatures on labor productivity and public health.

According to the report’s authors, if we continue with business as usual, “additional projected sea level rise will likely increase average annual property losses from hurricanes and other coastal storms for the [Northeast]region by $6 billion to $9 billion by 2100.” The Southeast region also will experience sea level rise, as well as significant increases in average daily temperatures and humidity. This will not only restrict outdoor labor productivity, but may also threaten the lives of those unable to afford the appropriate air conditioning equipment. Visitation to southern coastal parks like Everglades National Park may be reduced due to intolerable heat or inaccessibility to certain areas from sea level rise.

Elsewhere, increasing temperatures in the Great Plains and Midwest regions are expected to result in a decline in crop yields, water availability, and energy production. These changes will increase food and energy costs. As the Southwest warms, less snow will fall in the mountains of California and the Southern Rockies, leading to reduced runoff and water availability. This will affect winter sporting opportunities and summer lake activities at parks like Yosemite Mountain National Park and Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

Through the Climate Change Response Program, NPS has been working to address climate change through adaptation, science, mitigation and communication. A discussion about climate change impacts and our nation’s parks is intended raise awareness and encourage scenario planning and preparedness. While these impacts will pose a challenge for park managers and NPS concessioners, anticipating the risks will allow for better planning and preparedness as NPS approaches its Centennial in 2016.

As Director Jarvis states, “Studies like this are critical to inform national park managers and visitors alike about their local climate impacts so they can take proactive steps to address climate change. Although the National Park Service alone cannot reverse the climate changes highlighted in this report, communicating these impacts with our 275 million annual visitors can make a difference.”

NPS concessioners play a critical role in helping the NPS minimize carbon emissions and educate park visitors about climate change. By implementing energy efficiency measures, switching to alternative fuels, and supporting Climate Friendly Parks initiatives, concessioners can do their part to mitigate the effects of climate change. In addition, being aware of the climatic changes already underway at parks and understanding the potential economic risks from climate change better positions concessioners to adapt and thrive into the future.

Sources:

Climate Exposure of US National Parks in a New Era of Change, July 02, 2014. William Monahan and Nicholas Fisichelli. National Park Service, Natural Resource Stewardship & Science, Fort Collins, Colorado, United States of America.

National Park Service Report Confirms Climate Change in National Parks. National Park Service Press Release, July 02, 2014.

Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States. June, 2014.