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Report Finds Global Warming Taking a Toll on Parks

Saving Natural Treasures Demands New Policies on Heat-Trapping Gases

WASHINGTON - World Wildlife Fund (WWF) today warned that reductions in heat-trapping gas emissions from burning fossil fuels are urgently needed to protect treasured national and state parks from global warming. The warning comes as WWF releases a new report on the latest scientific research on warming and parks at a 10-year global forum of park managers, scientists and policymakers now underway in South Africa.

"If we want our children to enjoy our national parks and wildlife areas the way we do, policymakers must pass measures to reduce heat-trapping gas emissions," said Katherine Silverthorne, director of WWF's U.S. Climate Change Program. "The parks and wildplaces Americans know and love will be seriously degraded or could disappear altogether, unless we combat global warming now to prevent further damage."

The WWF study shows that climate change impacts are already being observed in many parks worldwide, including in the United States. It finds that climate change is the most consistent explanation for many alterations in the range or behavior of animals and plants. Recent research suggests that many of the types of damaging environmental changes predicted in climatic models are already taking place.

Sea level rise is already affecting coastal ecosystems, including precious salt-marshes.

  • One third of the marshland in Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland's Eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay has disappeared since 1938. Half of that loss is thought to be due to extraction from aquifers, with the rest caused by sea-level rises. Researchers expect the remaining marsh to be flooded within 25 years, eliminating winter habitat for many waterfowl species.
  • In Waccasassa Bay State Park Preserve along Florida's gulf coast, researchers concluded that cabbage palms and other trees are falling victim to saltwater exposure tied to global sea level rise. The problem is exacerbated by drought and a reduction of freshwater flow.

In all, seven thousand miles of protected U.S. shoreline, including 80 coastal parks such as Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland, are considered at risk from sea-level rise.

"People can see the damage happening just miles from where the Congress is debating whether or not to do something about greenhouse gas emissions," said Silverthorne. "The Congress needs to open its eyes and take action to keep these treasures around."

While some ecosystems may not disappear altogether, many will suffer irreversible damage. Beautiful coral reefs are under threat due to coral bleaching caused by higher sea temperatures linked to global warming. Bleaching events kill corals and, ultimately, can lead to the death of the whole reef. Reefs in marine sanctuaries are no exception. A 2003 WWF report found coral bleaching at all seven of its research sites in the U.S. territory of American Samoa, including within the National Park of American Samoa, Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and Maloata Bay Community Preserve.

"We've taken steps to protect these places from other threats for good reasons. We cannot let them be lost to global warming," added Silverthorne. "With scientific evidence mounting on the devastating environmental damage already underway in the nation?s backyard, it's irresponsible for our leaders to oppose the implementation of existing solutions to the global warming problem. Stewardship of the public's most treasured natural areas demands expansion of national conservation efforts to include policies that reduce the impacts of global warming, increase energy efficiency and the use of clean, renewable energy."

Climate change is caused by heat-trapping gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels-coal, oil and gas-for energy. Atmospheric levels of the main heat-trapping gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), are now higher than at any time in the past 420,000 years. Responsible for 37 percent of worldwide CO2 emissions, electricity producers are the biggest single source of CO2 pollution. WWF has challenged key global actors in the electricity producing sector-electric utilities, politicians and banks - to switch from coal to clean energy sources such as wind, solar, and biomass.

The need for long-term protection of national parks and other valuable protected areas is the subject of the Fifth World Parks' Congress in Durban, South Africa from September 8 to 15.

Download the report:
No Place To Hide: Effects of Climate Change on Protected Areas (PDF, 1.12M)