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August 12, 2013 at 11:30 AM

National parks: canaries in the coal mine of climate change

Glacier National Park, as I describe in my column today, is the National Park Service’s posterchild for climate change. A park service official darkly joked that, once the glaciers all melt by 2030 or even 2020, the park will have to be renamed Glacier Historical National Park.

For a visual, click on the before/after image. In addition, check out an animated depiction of shinking glaciers created by the U.S. Geological Survey.Glacier National Park

Our national parks are canaries in the coal mine of climate change. Some are confronting conditions so changed that they undermine the reason the park was established. The habitat at Joshua Tree National Park is so hot and dry that the namesake tree may no longer survive there. Same with the Sequoia, Redwoods and Shenandoah National Parks.

In the Northwest, at issue is our ability to reach our backwoods, said Chip Jenkins, deputy regional director for the NPS’s Northwest region. “What polar bears are to climate change in the Arctic, access will be a key issue for climate change in the Northwest,” said Jenkins. “We’re taking steps now to respond to current conditions. And we’re taking steps to look into the future.”

Hard choices are already being made. Some roads haven’t been rebuilt – the Carbon River road at Mount Rainier, and the Stehekin road in the North Cascades National Parks – following damage, and anticipating further.

Despite stubborn resistance to the reality of climate change, the park service is candid about the effects of a changed environment. At Glacier, visitors were confronted with frank, science-based depictions of climate change, armed with a decade of data for ecological monitoring.

As I argue in my column, the longer we allow deniers to slow-walk the debate, the worse the legacy we leave to our kids. But disputes about climate change go on within the park service as well, Jenkins said. “We’re teaching our own employees and staff about what we do and don’t know, and are engaged in pretty robust discussions about what it may mean for parks… And sometimes it is a challenge,” he said. ““There are people in the park service who question human’s influence on a changing climate.”

Even as they they see glaciers melting before their eyes.

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