RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
One hundred years ago this month, the National Park Service was founded to protect the nation's iconic landscapes. Now, many of those landscapes face a new risk - a warming climate. Lauren Sommer from member station KQED takes us to Joshua Tree National Park in the southern California desert where the park's namesake tree is disappearing.
LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Joshua trees are weird. They've got shaggy bark, twisted branches and needle-like leaves.
CAMERON BARROWS: It's something that you don't even imagine could live on Earth, and here it is. It's something very alien.
SOMMER: Cameron Barrows is standing right underneath one.
BARROWS: It's like a Dr. Seuss book.
SOMMER: And if these are Dr. Seuss trees, then Barrows is the Lorax who speaks for the trees. He's an ecologist with the University of California, Riverside.
BARROWS: So the biggest ones over there, those could be anywhere from 150 to 250 years old.
SOMMER: They stretch across the dusty valley we're in where Barrows and his research team are trying to find out what will happen to the trees that this national park is named after.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This one is 690 and 31.
SOMMER: The team uses yardsticks to map out the Joshua trees and monitor them year after year. And to the untrained eye, it looks pretty good here - big Joshua trees. But that worries Barrows.
BARROWS: We want to see babies, and what we're not seeing are individual seedlings that are coming up.
SOMMER: The youngest trees here are 30 to 40 years old, which means seedlings aren't surviving. And the likely culprit, Barrow says, is climate change. Joshua trees already live in harsh conditions.
BARROWS: They're well-adapted to what we have now, but you turn up the temperature a couple of degrees and that would be the end of most of these plants.
SOMMER: Barrows expects Joshua tree habitat in the park to shrink by as much as 90 percent by the end of the century. But he says that doesn't mean the park has to change its name.
BARROWS: There's a little one sprouting there. There's another one over there.
SOMMER: About half an hour away, Barrows is finding baby Joshua trees. The difference is that we're at a higher elevation, so it's a little cooler and wetter.
BARROWS: There are these little niches within this landscape that should be able to sustain Joshua trees.
KRISTEN LALUMIERE: Yeah, this site is actually looking pretty good.
SOMMER: Kristen Lalumiere is also scoping out the baby Joshua trees, which just come up to her knee. She's a biologist with the National Park Service.
LALUMIERE: You walk to a site like this where there are some and your spirits lift.
SOMMER: She says the park is looking at how to protect the trees in these small high elevation pockets, either by keeping out wildfires or controlling invasive species.
JON JARVIS: We are already seeing the effects of climate change throughout the national park system.
SOMMER: Jon Jarvis is director of the National Park Service. He says sea level rise threatens the Everglades of Everglades National Park in Florida. Glacier National Park in Montana will lose its glaciers. And that complicates things for the National Park Service, he says. Until now, the goal has been preserving parks, keeping things the same. Now, they may have to let plants and animals move. And they'll have to help the public understand what's happening.
JARVIS: These are places that people care about. And maybe it can stimulate their own actions as a result of seeing the effects of climate change in international parks.
SOMMER: Jarvis hopes that a hundred years from now the Joshua trees that visitors see in the national park aren't just in pictures on the welcome sign. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer in Joshua Tree National Park.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.