More than 84 million acres make up the 423 national parks in the United States. But these forests, grasslands, mountain ranges, hiking trails, and more are at risk because the climate crisis won’t allow us to have nice things.
The National Park Service, created in 1916 to help preserve the best of our landscapes, last year released a new guide for park managers, which warned that a changing climate meant that the service would now have to pick and choose what to save and to plan for worst-case climate scenarios.
“The scope, pace, and magnitude of climate-related changes will continue to present new challenges for the National Park Service, with an accompanying reality that it will not be possible to safeguard all park resources, processes, assets, and values in their current form or context over the long term,” the guide explains.
With that in mind, here’s a list of what we stand to lose if we don’t mitigate our changing climate.
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park is famous for its scenery and unique plant life, particularly the “Joshua trees” (which are actually huge succulents) that have grown in the Mojave Desert for more than 2 million years. Research published in 2020 found that if global greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate, less than 1% of the plants in this national park will survive.
If drastic measures are taken to reduce emissions and the impact of the climate crisis, less than 20% of the iconic trees’ habitat would remain. We’re already seeing damage in real time: Forest fires have already burned millions of the Joshua trees, a sign of what may come.
Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming is home to a beautiful snowy mountain range that is at risk of disappearing — the snow part, not the mountains. Scientists have been able to document significant glacial retreat for more than 90 years.
Wildfires are also encroaching on the area, hurting trees and wildlife that live in the park. Firefighters in Wyoming had to conduct fuel reduction burns in 2021 to lower the risk of out-of-control wildfires in the park.
Yellowstone National Park
The stunning Yellowstone National Park sits on top of a volcanic hot stop and hosts hot springs, pine forests, and geysers, which draw people from all over the world who really want to snag a scenic selfie. But since the mid-20th century, the park has experienced an average temperature increase of more than 2 degrees. This has meant less snowfall in the park, more wildfires, and unhealthy air quality for visitors and the many animals that call the park home.
Acadia National Park
Maine’s Acadia National Park has seen an average temperature rise of a little over 3 degrees in the last century, creating an ideal environment for forest pests that spread diseases, like ticks. Rising temperatures also put native plants at risk of dying from pathogens or invasive insect species. Lately, the area has seen widespread death of Acadia’s notable red pines.
These changes also affect winter snowpack and will make it harder to host winter sports like skiing and snowboarding in the area.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Like some of the other parks in the West, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado has braved huge wildfires that have threatened animal habitats and air quality for visitors. Just this past November, there were wildfires near the gateway to the park at a time of the year when there should have been snow in the area. But droughts have significantly lowered soil moisture, which has increased the right conditions for wildfires.