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America’s National Parks Show Effects of Global Warming

New Study Documents Ecological Changes in Parks and Wildlife Refuges, Projects Serious Consequences Without International Action

New York, June 24, 1997 -- America’s national parks offer no refuge from global warming, according to a new study from World Wildlife Fund that analyzes impacts and potential threats from climate change to supposedly "protected" habitats and species.

The study reveals alarming facts about impacts already occurring such as glaciers that are projected to disappear within 30 years in Glacier National Park and rising sea levels in low-lying refuges such as Blackwater. It points to the urgent need to reach a binding international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the Kyoto, Japan Climate Summit in December.

"We know we've reached a crisis point when the glaciers are moving faster than the governments," said Adam Markham, Director of WWF's Climate Change Campaign. "My hope is that this new report will serve like the first alarm in a fire. By taking action immediately, we can save our national treasures. It would be a terrible mistake to follow the self-serving advice of fossil fuel interests who tell us to stick our heads in the sand, ignore all the alarm bells, and do nothing."

Many national parks and wildlife refuges -- which are visited by 250 million people each year -- are already showing signs of global warming. Examples include:

  • the invasion of the alpine meadows in Mt. Rainier and Olympic National Parks by plants previously found at lower altitudes;
  • spruce trees in Rocky Mountain National Park that are undergoing unprecedented growth spurts;
  • changes in Caribou migratory patterns in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge;
  • the disappearance of four million seabirds off the US West Coast;
  • the inundation of wetlands in Maryland’s Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge by rising sea levels.

The study represents the first comprehensive analysis of the threat from global warming to America's national parks. The report is based on a careful review of the existing scientific literature, extensive interviews with scientists working on the ground, and previously unpublished data and materials.

The report includes 19 case studies of individual parks and refuges in North America, and an entirely new scientific analysis revealing the effects of nine different climate scenarios on the vegetation in US parks and protected areas. This analysis suggests that warming will drastically change the vegetation in more than a quarter of U.S. national parks and cause the loss of wetlands in the Upper Midwest, threatening the most important sites for breeding.

Overall, the protected areas considered most vulnerable to climate change include those in mountain and low-lying coastal areas, the Great Plains and Alaska. Individual parks that are threatened include Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Everglades, Great Smoky Mountains, Hawaii's Haleakala, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"The reason global warming is such a grave threat to our national parks is the fact that it comes in addition to so many other serious problems already threatening America's protected areas," Markham said.

Global warming, caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, is projected to be faster than at any time in the last 10,000 years, and the 10 warmest years on record have all been in the last two decades. WWF believes it is critical for the US government to take the lead in the ongoing international negotiations to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

With the International Climate Summit now only six months away, there is currently no indication that a binding agreement will be reached to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions below 1990 levels by the year 2005.

Individuals can help slow global warming by making their houses more energy efficient, driving fuel efficient vehicles, and pressuring governments to enact limits on carbon dioxide emissions.

Better management of the areas surrounding parks, greater connectivity of habitat areas between them, and reduction of existing environmental threats, such as wetland drainage and road building may help our national parks and protected areas withstand some of the coming climate changes.