The results could make you sweat. Parks are projected to have summers that are 8-12°F hotter by 2100. That means currently cool mountainous parks could be as hot as the plains. Parks in the Southeast, already a pretty hot place, will face even more extreme temperatures with a climate more like southern Texas. And otherworldly Joshua Tree National Park in southern California will face the greatest geographical climate shift, with temperatures more like Abu Dhabi by 2100.
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We also analyzed how many more days with extreme heat the parks could face. Extreme heat is a hallmark of global warming, and its impact will be most arresting in the national parks where people go, by design, to be outside in the summer. Like the rest of the country, parks are going to be seeing more dangerously hot days above 90°F, 95°F, and 100°F.
By 2100, the glaciers of Montana's Glacier National Park will be long gone and rising temperatures will be one of the big reasons why. Visitors will not only have to contend with an ice-free landscape, but also hotter temperatures. Today the park sees an average of only one 90°F day each year. It could see 27 days with temperatures above 90°F by the end of the century.
Yosemite National Park, high in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, currently sees about two weeks of 90°F weather every year. By 2050, it could see nearly a month of those temperatures, and by 2100 it could get nearly 50 such days each year.
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And the Great Smoky Mountains, currently the most-visited National Park, could go from fewer than 10 days above 90°F each year, on average now, to three months with those scorching temperatures.
In numerous other parks, the number of days above 100°F is projected to skyrocket. Big Bend National Park in Texas could see more than 110 days above 100°F each year, on average. And Great Basin National Park in Nevada, which currently doesn't have any days above 100°F in a typical year, could see a month of those temperatures each year by 2100.
It's likely that parks on the more extreme end of the temperature scale will see a drop in summer visitation, but more visitors are likely to show up in fall and spring when it won't be fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk hot. That may stretch park resources thin as most parks are set up to handle summer crowds and quieter shoulder seasons. How parks deal with the change in visitation season is an open question.
And all this is to say nothing about the impacts extreme heat will have on the natural resources around which we created national parks in the first place. Joshua Tree could become too hot for its namesake trees and there's evidence that extreme summer days could create more rockfalls in Yosemite, which could change the face of the stunning valley at the center of the park. Wildfire risk will also skyrocket across the West and could make summer park vacations not only more hot but more smoky.
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Those are just the most visible changes. Whole ecosystems are likely to be disrupted and there are consequences scientists probably haven't even uncovered yet (those are the ones that could be the worst since we'll be least prepared).
Despite the daunting situation facing the National Park Service in its second century, there are signs it's up for the challenge. It's already addressing climate change from the coast to the high mountains and has an A-Team team of experts to help parks answer the gnarly questions they face.
There's no denying that national parks will look a lot different by the end of the century, but that won't make them any less a part of the fabric of American identity.
Analysis by James Bronzan and Alyson Kenward, PhD.
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