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National Parks are Hot Spots

In this space, I’ve often shared my love for National Park-based research. I count myself among the researchers devoting time and energy to documenting how climate change affects the ecosystems and natural resources in U.S. National Parks; we study everything from pikas to forests, Joshua trees to birds. But, the underlying rate of warming in these National Parks was not on my radar and I had not given much thought to the climate exposure of National Parks versus the rest of the United States. It turns out, the parks are literal hotspots on the landscape.

Last fall, Dr. Patrick Gonzalez and coauthors from the University of Wisconsin published ‘Disproportionate magnitude of climate change in United States national parks’ in Environmental Research Letters. This study looked at historical and projected temperature and precipitation across all 417 U.S. National Parks. Between 1895 and 2010, mean annual temperature of the national park area increased at double the U.S. rate — parks warmed by 1.0°C (±0.2°C) per century, the rest of the U.S. land area by 0.5 °C.

Dr. Gonzalez is a forest ecologist and Associate Adjunct Professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also the Principal Climate Change Scientist of the U.S. National Park Service, but he answered my questions here under his Berkeley affiliation, not for the Park Service.

I asked why he wanted to study a spatial analysis of historical and projected climate across all 417 US National Parks. What was the motivation for expanding on the earlier work of researchers who presented similar findings for the 289 large parks in the National Park System system?

poster from Boston Public Library, Dorothy Waugh (artist), 1930-1939 (approximate), Creative Commons license

“Up until our research, the severity of climate change across all the US national parks was unknown.” Gonzalez writes. “The previous work had only looked at subsets of parks. I work at a national level and it is important for me to give national policy-makers scientific information that is robust and comprehensive. The time-consuming parts of the work were the individual analyses by park and the computational tasks of downscaling all available general circulation model output of future climate projections to 800 m spatial resolution, which had not previously been accomplished for the U.S.”

In addition to the climate exposure of National Parks, Gonzalez and his team considered climate velocities. Climate velocity is the speed at which a plant or animal will need to move, migrate, or disperse — usually north or upslope — to “catch up” to their climate as it changes. Gonzalez found an interesting paradox in climate velocities: the park lands have experienced extreme temperature and precipitation shifts, but they also show lower climate velocity than the U.S. as a whole. They point out that this does not mean that plants and animals in National Parks are not in peril: “The lower climate velocities in the national park area are an artifact of that indicator being calculated as horizontal movement of areas of constant climate. Climate velocity can underestimate exposure in mountains.”

The National Parks are more mountainous than the rest of the United States. This is a reflection of our unsystematic history of serendipitous-style protection; we collect the pretty places as national parks, without considering the underlying biophysical diversity, and mountains are very pretty places. So while moving a couple meters upslope might seem easier than moving hundred of meters north to track a suitable climate, this is often an oversimplification. “Despite the computational artifact, our results indicate that projected climate velocities in national parks could exceed maximum natural dispersal capabilities of many trees, small mammals, and herbaceous plants.” Gonzalez elaborates, “Any new protection of natural areas, whether close to or far from national parks, can add to global conservation of ecosystems for biodiversity and human well-being.”

I asked Gonzalez if he had any thoughts on how the research could be interpreted for park visitors. I wanted to know if there is an effort to get this work not just to park managers on the ground, but to interpretive staff as well. “For national park interpreters, I’ve given many presentations directly to staff in individual parks, including interpreters,” he says. “I encourage all U.S. National Park Service staff to speak about the robust science of climate change and its human cause, which points us to solutions to saving America’s most special places.”

post from Boston Public Library, Dorothy Waugh (artist), 1930-1939 (approximate), Creative Commons license

Finally, I noticed that both this paper and the earlier National Park System climate exposure study, which covered 289 large parks, were published in open access journals. I asked if this was an intentional pattern and these research teams were hoping to reach managers who may not have access to peer-reviewed journal articles.

Gonzalez confirmed that, “the open access of the journal of course enabled a much larger audience to directly download and read the original work. This greatly benefited national park staff and other natural resource managers, to whom we aimed to provide information useful for conservation under climate change. Intense interest immediately developed – people downloaded the pdf file more than once a minute in the first 24 hours of publication.”

But their outreach was not limited to open access journals. Gonzalez points out, “public media published over 40 individual stories, including in the Washington Post, on page 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle, on public radio stations, and on television.” Gonzalez also wrote a concise summary for the website the Conversation. He says that the University of California, Berkeley, has greatly helped in the effort to reach natural resource managers by publicly posting the spatial data, and he directly provided customized analyses and maps for numerous individual national parks. Finally, Gonzalez writes, “I just presented the results to the U.S. Congress in a hearing where I testified on human-caused climate change in U.S. national parks. The open access of the journal was critical, but we engaged a broader effort to widely communicate the science.”

Thank you to Dr. Gonzalez and his colleagues for providing the climate data that underlies so much ecological research across the National Park System! And thank you for modeling effective outreach and impressive science communication*!



Gonzalez, P., Wang, F., Notaro, M., Vimont, D. J., & Williams, J. W. (2018). Disproportionate magnitude of climate change in United States national parks. Environmental Research Letters, 13(10), 104001–13. http://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aade09

Monahan WB, Fisichelli NA (2014) Climate Exposure of US National Parks in a New Era of Change. PLoS ONE 9(7): e101302. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0101302


Banner image: photos by Jodi Kurtz, Via Tsuji, and Gabriel Millos, Creative Commons


*if I ever publish a paper that averages one pdf download every minute, I will throw the biggest party and give everyone temporary tattoos of the figures.

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