How Will Climate Change Affect the World's Parks? From the disappearance of frogs, to the bleaching of coral reefs, scientists say global warming is already affecting plants and animals around the world. And the world's parks and protected areas are not immune to the effects.
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How Will Climate Change Affect the World's Parks?

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How Will Climate Change Affect the World's Parks?

How Will Climate Change Affect the World's Parks?

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Scientists say the world's climate is rapidly changing, and we are only beginning to see the effects: an earlier spring in many places, the thawing of permafrost in the Artic, shifts in the ranges of some animals. Warmer temperatures have even changed the range and migration of fish and affected other organisms that live in the oceans. But animals aren't the only living things responding to changing temperatures. The ranges of some plants and trees, these ranges are shifting, too. And with earlier spring in some places, the delicate balance between pollinators and the plants they pollinate has been disrupted. So climate change is here now. What can we do to minimize its effect on plants and animals? Should we do anything? For many years we've been setting aside parks and protected areas to preserve habitat and protect endangered species. Will those areas need to be rethought or managed in a different way during global warming?

Joining me now to talk more about it is Lee Hannah. He is senior research scientist with the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science at Conservation International. He joins us from Santa Barbara, California. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Hannah.

Dr. LEE HANNAH (Senior Research Scientist, Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, Conservation International): Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Lisa Graumlich is the director of the School of Natural Resources at the University of Arizona. She's also a professor there, and she joins us from KUAZ in Tucson. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Graumlich.

Dr. LISA GRAUMLICH (Director, School of Natural Resources, University of Arizona): Thank you, Ira. It's great to be here.

FLATOW: Let's start with you because you're out - you're in the Southwest. You're seeing all kinds of changes out there, are you not?

Dr. GRAUMLICH: Absolutely, the West has turned out to be second only to the Artic in terms of registering changes here in the United States. As you mentioned, we're seeing great snow pack declines. We've got snow packs in the Northwestern part that's about - of the United States - that's about 40 percent of what we had experienced in the middle part of the 20th century. As that snow pack declines, we're seeing much more larger and more extensive and more frequent wildfires. We figure there's about a six-fold increase in the area burned in the West since 1986.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. GRAUMLICH: For us in Arizona it means in the last five years about 20 percent of our forested lands here have been affected by fire. That's big in a place like Arizona.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm, so you're also dry enough to be waiting for more fires to happen.

Dr. GRAUMLICH: Absolutely, and, you know, it's not just fires. We're also seeing things like massive mortality of existing forest stands. The pinion pine is the first tree that you see as you start to go up in elevations from the desert scrub here, and we've had the drought that many people are aware of, the one that has drawn down lake levels and Lake Powell, et cetera.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. GRAUMLICH: And those of us here at the U of A that have been studying it, folks like Dave Breashears and - at U of A - have shown that we've got anywhere from 40 to 80 percent of the pinion pines dying, not just here and there, but over about a 2.5 million area here in Arizona and New Mexico. So we're starting to see waves of forest mortality that is - appears to be this double whammy of a drought. And the drought's, frankly, not unlike things we had in the dustbowl or the 1950s, but it's a hot drought. We haven't had a global change-type drought before in the 20th century, and it has markedly much more extensive effects than anything we've seen in the 20th century.

FLATOW: We're talking about change of the flora and fauna this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Our number: 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK.

Lee Hannah, you are working in South Africa. Let's talk about what's happening in other parts of the world outside of the U.S. Give us an idea of what you can see.

Dr. HANNAH: Well, we've looked at the ranges of species in South Africa. One is Aloe dichotoma, which is a tree aloe, and we found that its range is shifting pole-ward in the south, because it's in the southern hemisphere, and up-slope, and that's one of the first times the whole range shift has been demonstrated in a plant. And it tells us that plants, just as when we plant our gardens we look at the growing regions in the back of the catalogue to figure what'll grow, well, plants in the wild have climatic conditions they prefer as well, and they'll follow those climatic conditions as the planet's climate changes.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm, let me ask both of you, but let me begin with Lisa, let's talk about the parks. We're focusing on parks around the world, around the country. What happens to the flora and fauna in these parks? Can they move? Do they shift? Are they trapped? What can we expect to see happen?

Dr. GRAUMLICH: Well, it's interesting to think about parks, because they were created to essentially sort of draw a line in the sand and say humans aren't going to affect these lands, we're just going to kind of lock them up, and they'll preserve nature for - I believe it's, you know, referred to as the leave it unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. GRAUMLICH: Parks are now confronted with the question that they actually need to actively manage these landscapes and the landscapes, more importantly, surrounding the parks in an era of climate change. So all of a sudden you've got a real sea change among the leadership in the U.S. National Park Service, where they're looking seriously at how they're going to create migration corridors and ways in which species, you know, refugee species from one park really need to become established in another park. And that migration might be able to go forth in a somewhat natural way. It may even need to have assistance for certain kinds of species that have, either because of the way, you know, regeneration occurs or dispersal occurs, they may need help.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm, you're talking...

Dr. GRAUMLICH: I just recent...

FLATOW: Yeah, I'm sorry. Go ahead.

Dr. GRAUMLICH: It was interesting, because earlier in the week I was with about 800 National Park Service people at a meeting in Minneapolis, and the - they're seriously rethinking how they're managing parks in the face of climate change, and there's some new thinking, some fresh thinking, and certainly a lot of motivation to take this seriously.

FLATOW: Give me an idea of what they're thinking about.

Dr. GRAUMLICH: Well, for instance, they're doing a lot more discussion of how public/private partnerships need to be instituted. There was a lot of talk about the way in which the Yellowstone To Yukon Initiative, and worked on by our Canadian colleagues, has insured that migration pathways can go unimpeded from Yellowstone up in to the Yukon. Well, how do we use that as a model for how we might manage parks throughout the West?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm, those would be animals that would be migrating. What about the plants? You mentioned the pinion pine disappearing. There's nothing you could do to stop trees, for example, or plants from moving out of the park or dying off there.

Dr. GRAUMLICH: Absolutely, there's very little one can do, and I think there's a real sort of ethical question about how much one should do. And it's not clear, you know, because, one, you know, mortality is a, quote, unquote, natural process. I think in the end the bottom-line is great concern about the kind of projections that have come out of the inner governmental panel on climate change, just in the last month, that look at potential for 20 to 30 percent of plant and animal species likely to be at a risk of extinction in the next 50 to 100 years and what does this mean about how you, actually, potentially, even think about a triage scenario.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm, Lee Hannah, what are they thinking about in the parks in other parts of the world?

Dr. HANNAH: Well, we recently worked with researchers in three parts of the world to look at what climate change means for parks, and our concern was just those that's Lisa's been underlining, which is species' ranges will shift. We know that's what's happened in the past, and since our protected areas are fixed in place, one of the questions we wanted to answer is, well, are parks even really a relevant conservation response in an era of rapid climate change (unintelligible) human fossil fuel emissions? And we studied three different areas where large numbers of species had computer models projecting their future distributions and asked whether protected areas could improve the conservation of their future ranges as they shift across these landscapes. And somewhat to our surprise, I think, we found that protected areas could do a very good job of improving the conservation of these species in their future ranges.

Now this is in the early stages of climate change, up to about 2050. But at least in that time frame we were finding that additional protected areas would serve very well to capture some of the range that has been lost as species move out of existing protected areas.

So there were two important lessons of that work, I think, one of which is the protected areas, new protected areas, are going to be required because of climate change. And secondly, at least in the early stages of climate change, even fixed protected areas have enough area and enough scope for capturing the dynamics of species movements that they really can be a relevant conservation response. I think in the long-term we wind up with such large changes in species ranges that protected areas become less relevant. Corridors and long distance connections are helpful but maybe difficult and expensive to establish. So we clearly need to get climate change stopped as soon as possible as well.

FLATOW: Yeah, because you may not be able to expand the range into the places -let's say if things are warming up and you're moving north, there may not be any room there.

Dr. HANNAH: Exactly, so there are certainly situations where species are at the tops of the mountaintops. We're already seeing severe impacts on polar species. So there are clear limits to what protected areas can do, but it's also clear that climate change is going to increase the need for protected areas in the decades to come.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Lisa, let's talk about - I know you were a Montana resident before moving to Tucson with the park Glacier National Park there. Really, there's no way to protect a melting glacier, is there?

Dr. GRAUMLICH: No, there really isn't beyond just, you know, as Lee mentioned, doing everything that we can to slow down the rate at which we're emitting carbon dioxide and slow down these processes. We're looking at a pretty sober scenario for Glacier National Park. Glaciers are retreating. We've been watching that during the entire 20th century. And the problem with the glaciers, particularly as it starts to shrink, there's any number of factors that means the melting or wastage of that glacier starts to accelerate. And under various, very credible scenarios, we're thinking about a park that will be largely glacier-free by 2020 or 2030. You know, it becomes this irony of the park, you know, sort of formerly known as Glacier National Park. It's - it really changes a lot of how we think about these areas.

This has a lot of cascading impacts. The glacier - the streams coming from the glaciers not only, you know, are sort of rich with water, but it's a cool kind of water. So we're going to see warmer water in the streams in Glacier National Park. That changes the flora and fauna, particularly the invertebrates that are - that fish species are dependent upon, and we're likely to see a real change in all sorts of species components of Glacier National Park, not just the loss of the glaciers themselves.

FLATOW: Because it all does move down - up and down the food chain.

Dr. GRAUMLICH: (unintelligible)

FLATOW: And we'll talk about that a little bit more. We have to take a break. We're talking with Lee Hannah, senior research scientist with the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science at Conservation International, and Lisa Graumlich, who is director of the School of Natural Resources at the University of Arizona. We're going to take a short break, come back, talk lots more about the effects of global warming on the park system, take your phone calls if we can. So stay with us, we'll be right back.

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I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about how parks and protected areas might be affected by climate change. My guests are Lee Hannah, senior research scientist with the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science at Conservation International. Lisa Graumlich is the director of the School of Natural Resources at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. So let's see if we can go to the phones, get some calls. I know there are a lot of people who would like to talk about climate change, and let's see if we can get a call or two there. Let's go to Mandy in Bakersfield. Hi, Mandy.

MANDY (Caller): Hi, how are you?

FLATOW: Hi there.

MANDY: I have a question about is there anyplace on the net or we can write to that has - where we can tell about what's happening locally at our very small little level and say that, hey, here in Bakersfield, we didn't get any tomatoes last summer because it was so hot, which is unheard of...

FLATOW: Is that true? Is that what happened last...

MANDY: ...or the freezing cold weather we had.

FLATOW: Is that what happened last summer, Mandy?



MANDY: I plant a garden every summer, and we did not have any tomatoes. And I thought, well, maybe it's me. And I went to the farmers' market, and all the farmers said the same thing, that it was so hot that the tomatoes could not come out because the blossoms were falling off the plant it was so hot.

FLATOW: Wow, Professor Graumlich?

Dr. GRAUMLICH: Yeah, Mandy, it turns out that people are more and more interested in citizens who are observing these changes in - we have a sort of odd word for it, we call it phenology, and that's phrenology, like how brain structure - brain, you know, how your brain looks influences your behavior, but this is phenology or the timing of biological events, particularly if they're related to climate. And I'm actually really excited, having just arrived here in Arizona, that we've actually just recently established a National Phenology Network - it's called the NPN, that's probably a little easier to remember -here at the University of Arizona. I believe it's And we are actively looking for citizens making observations, whether it's of tomato plants, whether it's bud bursts in either the cultivated species you might have in your yard, or times of sort of insect emergence. Because we realize that in many ways the way weather has been, you know, sort of documented by citizen observers and has created a really strong record during the 20th century of how climate is changing, we need people like you weighing in about what you're seeing in your own backyard. So I urge you to look up NPN on Google and get involved.

MANDY: Oh, that's wonderful, because that's exactly what - I've been going, whoa, there's not a bee in my garden this spring, so...

Dr. GRAUMLICH: Yeah, and...

MANDY: ...thank you very much for that information.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling.

Dr. GRAUMLICH: And, Mandy, if I...


FLATOW: No, go ahead.

Dr. GRAUMLICH: Mandy, if I can just make a real plea for people like Mandy to get involved because, you know, this whole global climate change, if Mandy just says, you know, something's going on in her backyard, that really isn't evidence. It's when we accumulate hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands of records of climate impacts that we both start to have scientific credibility but probably more importantly can start to influence people's opinions and perceptions of this issue in such a way that it gains more public support.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. HANNAH: It's one of the lines of evidence that really indicates the climate is changing, because people have been interested, for instance, in Europe and the first signs of spring and have meticulously recorded them. People have looked at the breakup of ice and rivers when it used to be important for navigation. So those records are one of the lines of evidence that we use to determine that the planet has changed, and they'll continue to be very important in the future.

FLATOW: Malcolm in Grants Pass, Oregon. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MALCOLM (Caller): Good morning. Thank you, Ira. I love your program.

FLATOW: Thank you.

MALCOLM: It's one of my favorite programs. I'm not an expert on climate change, but I do have a lot of experience working with forests. And I would like to caution you and your guests and the audience that blaming global warming on forest fire increases and more acreages lost I think may not be a very good correlation because we've changed our firefighting techniques so much in the last 20 or 30 years. For instance, we no longer put fire lines next to the fires. We go two or three miles away, which means thousands and thousands of acres burn that wouldn't have in the old way we fought fires. We've also closed a lot of smoke jumper bases who had a mantra which is - every fire out by 10:00 AM the next day. And they don't do that anymore, and we're letting fires burn. So since the Biscuit Fire, which you guys may have heard of, they let that burn for three days before they even went after it, and it got away and burnt 500,000 acres. That's got to change the equation quite a bit.

FLATOW: Professor Graumlich?

Dr. GRAUMLICH: Yeah, Malcolm, you know, that's something that's been of great interest to me, in part because I've lived really close to some of those places that have burned. I urge you to look at some of the evidence, particularly some recent papers published by Tony Westerleen(ph) in Science magazine, with a co-author of Tom Sweatnum(ph), where they gathered over a thousand records of fire in the Western U.S. They factored in management changes in terms of the ability to sort of - you know, using some of the fire atlases and other kinds of data sources - and could show that even looking at that change in management, we still have a higher number of fires than would be expected just based on those changes in management alone. But certainly everything that you just discussed about ways in which we've changed the way we've dealt with wildfire is a big factor in how we think about this. The problem is, boy, that wildfire signal is even surpassing what we would expect based on management changes alone.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255, just a few minutes left. Lee Hannah, are you feeling positive about our ability to deal with the park situation as global climate change, has the climate actually becomes very evident to everybody?

Dr. HANNAH: Well, as we've talked about today, there's some big challenges out there, and some of them involve management. We really need to begin to coordinate management and look closely at what management objectives the parks are, because, for instance, with Glacier National Park or you have parks that are set up to protect certain attributes or certain species that may not be there due to climate change. And as those shifts happen, that's exactly what our work was showing, was that as those shifts happen and you lose a species in one park, then you have to consider where it may be existing in the future. So as certain high-elevation species disappear around glaciers and in Glacier National Park, you may have to go farther north to find those species, and that may mean that we need additional protected areas to make sure that all species are under the umbrella of protection that we'd hope they have in our protected areas of parks and nature reserves.

FLATOW: There's no thought of changing some of the parks and the species in them into more like zoo-type environments where you would supply them with the things they can't normally get in the wild anymore.

Dr. HANNAH: Well, I think the thing we have to be careful about is not trying to turn parks into zoos and not trying to keep things static where they've been. And that's very difficult because many of our management regimes have looked at the past and said, well, we're going to manage to try and maintain a pre-European contact conditions, for instance. Well, those sort of benchmarks don't have relevance necessarily as we push climate into places it's never been before. But we do need to let natural processes unfold and not become obsessed with keeping things frozen in place. Because this change is coming, it is happening, and we need to figure out how to work with it on broader dynamics, across larger regions, as Lisa was suggesting.

FLATOW: Lisa, any last comments?

Dr. GRAUMLICH: I guess one last thing that people can think about is the role invasive species, the species that are coming to us from other continents, might play with this as well. We know that sometimes those invasive species have a much higher temperature tolerance, and one of the things we're seeing here in the Southwest is that the native fish species have a higher temperature tolerance than - I mean the invasive ones - have a higher tolerance than the natives. So everything that we can do, not only to combat climate change, but to think about sort of maintaining the ecological integrity of our parks and protected areas in other areas - like invasive species - is really critical. Once again, that's something - by controlling invasive species in people's yards and in their local parks, that's a real important step to helping us keep parks in an integral part of our landscape.

FLATOW: Interesting point. I want to thank you both for taking time to be with us today. Lisa Graumlich is director of the School of Natural Resources at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Lee Hannah is senior research scientist at Conservation International. Have a great weekend, both of you.

Dr. HANNAH: Thank you.

Dr. GRAUMLICH: Thank you.

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