Melting Glaciers, Shifting Biomes And Dying Trees In Our National Parks – Yet We Can Take Action On Climate Change

Human climate change has shifted vegetation and wildlife upslope in Yosemite National Park. Patrick Gonzalez, Author provided


Danielle Andrew 02 Sep 2016, 19:26

In Glacier National Park in Montana, Agassiz Glacier receded 1.5 kilometers from 1926 to 1979. Snow measurements and tree cores from Glacier National Park, North Cascades National Park, and other national parks contributed to an analysis showing that snowpack across the western U.S. has dropped to its lowest level in eight centuries.

Measuring glacier depth in North Cascades National Park. Photo by Jim McLeod, National Park Service

Climate change is raising sea levels and heating ocean waters. Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California hosts the tidal gauge with the longest time series on the U.S. West Coast. That gauge has contributed to the global database that the IPCC used to show that human climate change has raised sea level 17 to 21 centimeters in the 20th century. Measurements of sea surface temperatures by ocean buoys in Buck Island Reef National Monument, Channel Islands National Park, and Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument have contributed to a global database that IPCC has used to show that human climate change is heating surface waters at a rate of 1.1 ± 0.2 degrees Celsius per century.

On land, climate change is shifting the ranges where plants grow. A global analysis that colleagues and I published in 2010 found that, around the world, climate change has shifted biomes – major types of vegetation, such as forests and tundra – upslope or toward the poles or the Equator. This type of research requires long-term monitoring of permanent plots or reconstruction of past vegetation species distributions using historical information or analyses of tree rings or other markers of the past. In the African Sahel, I uncovered a biome shift by hiking 1,900 kilometers, counting thousands of trees, reconstructing past tree species distributions through verified interviews with village elders and counting thousands of trees on historical aerial photos.

Research has documented biome shifts in U.S. national parks. In Yosemite National Park, subalpine forest shifted upslope into subalpine meadows in the 20th century. In Noatak National Preserve, Alaska, boreal conifer forest shifted northward into tundra in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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