National parks and climate change: An unlikely connection?

Photo by Shane Lin |

Photo by Shane Lin |

Although we often label transportation, energy consumption, industry, and agriculture as major culprits behind global climate change, there are other less obvious factors to consider – including patterns of human tourism.  Interestingly, the increasing popularity of tourism to locations of ecological interest, such as National Parks, may also contribute to climate change patterns.  At the same time, however, the opposite is true: climate change may also affect tourist patterns.

A recent study used climate data and projected U.S. National Park visitation information to simulate future climate change scenarios for the years 2041-2060. Given an estimated 270 million National Park visits annually, researchers predict that more than 80 percent of the 340 parks show strong correlations between temperature and tourism.  The study also found that parks in higher latitudes and higher elevations are likely to have more visits and thus higher increases in temperature, while parks at lower latitudes and lower elevations (i.e., warmer areas) may not experience this warming.  Therefore, parks in tropical areas are expected to have minimal, if any, increases in average temperature.  The team concluded that adaptation to change would likely maximize opportunities and minimize harmful effects resulting from tourism.  For example, sea level rise may bring about new opportunities for coastal recreation, such as boating, in areas where these activities are not currently feasible.

Of course, park visitation patterns depend on multiple other factors, such as demographics, cost of travel, and the presence of other nearby attractions. Severe weather patterns may also cause visitors to avoid parks, for instance.  It becomes evident that many different outcomes are possible as climate patterns continue to change.

It is important to start planning for climate change early, and attempt to adapt to the environment where possible.  While these resources here are exclusive to U.S. National Parks, the same methodology can be applied to other large scale parks, including Canadian Provincial Parks.