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Volume 30
Number 1
Summer 2013
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Photo of Savage River carrying spring snowmelt and sediment along a braided path in Denali National Park. Research Reports
Potential effects of warming climate on visitor use in three Alaskan national parks
By Christine M. Albano, Courtney L. Angelo, Ronda L. Strauch, and Lindsey L. Thurman
Published: 15 Jan 2014 (online)  •  30 Jan 2014 (in print)
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Aerial photo of the Alaska Range showing a vast system of glaciers.


Known for its vast system of glaciers, the Alaska Range is home to Mount McKinley—a key attraction for visitors to Denali National Park. Warming climate may affect the timing and duration of the visitor season at national parks in Alaska and also the natural wonders visitors come to see.

Alaska’s national parks draw people from all over the world for wildlife viewing, breathtaking scenery, and recreational opportunities, including hiking, backpacking, mountain climbing, boating, hunting, and fishing. In 2012 these parks received more than 2.4 million visitors (NPS 2013a) and in 2011 they generated $237 million in state economic benefit, a conservative estimate because of challenges in capturing the full spending attributed to visiting national parks in Alaska (Cui et al. 2013). National parks provide a large portion of nature-based tourism. Regional climate directly affects this tourism by influencing the activities of visitors and contributing to the quality of the visitor experience (Amelung et al. 2007). The climatic influence on visitation is most evident in the northern national parks found in Alaska, wherein the majority of visits occur during the warmer months of summer when weather and daylight are conducive to recreational activities. Shifts in the length and quality of the warm season caused by climate change will likely alter visitation to national parks in Alaska (Suffling and Scott 2002) and provide a key consideration for planning recreation and tourism activities and related services (Scott and Lemieux 2010).

Relatively rapid climate change in Alaska poses a significant challenge to ecological conservation and management and to land use planning (NPS 2012a). Alaska’s climate has warmed over the last 50 years at an average rate of more than twice that of the rest of the United States (USGCRP 2009). During this time, annual mean air temperatures (hereafter referred to as “temperature”) throughout the state increased by 3.4°F (1.9°C) (USGCRP 2009). The greatest increases in Alaska were seen in the winter, with temperatures rising by 6.3°F (3.5°C) (USGCRP 2009). Total precipitation also increased in all seasons except summer at the end of the 20th century throughout the state outside of the Arctic region (Stafford et al. 2000). By the middle of the 21st century, annual precipitation is expected to increase and annual mean temperatures are expected to be 3.6° to 7°F (1.9°–3.9°C) higher than at present with a longer summer growing season (USGCRP 2009). Thus, climate change will continue to affect ecological, hydrological, and human systems in a profound way throughout Alaska (USGCRP 2009). Impacts on glacial and permafrost extent, storm severity, sea-level rise, subsistence living, severity and extent of forest fires, insect outbreaks, and general disruption to ecosystem processes and functions will continue to challenge scientists and planners (USGCRP 2009). All of these factors play a role in the safety, frequency of visits, and enjoyment of Alaska’s national parks.

The commitments associated with cost of travel, perceived isolation, and distance from the rest of the United States likely compel potential visitors to plan their vacations for times that maximize their chance of predictably good weather, which has been seen in other mountainous regions (Parks Canada 2004; Scott et al. 2007). National Park Service recreational visitor statistics for many U.S. national parks show that visitor use is related more often to regionally pleasant weather patterns than to institutional seasonality associated with school- and work-related vacation periods. For example, visitor use is highest during the spring and fall months in some parks located in the southwestern warm desert, where temperatures can be extreme in summer and winter. Alternatively, visitor use can be fairly consistent year-round in the Hawaiian Islands, where temperatures are generally pleasant throughout the year. Visitor use in the Rocky Mountains is often constrained to the summer months when temperatures typically exceed the likelihood of freezing conditions (NPS 2012b; fig. 1A, fig. 1B, and fig. 1C).

Scientists have established links between climate change and shifts in the timing of visitor use, with some parks already experiencing more visitor use earlier in the season than has been observed historically (Buckley and Foushee 2012). Climate change is expected to expand periods of climate conditions conducive to visitor use at higher latitudes (Scott et al. 2004; Amelung et al. 2007), which may lead to more visitor use at times that are currently considered shoulder seasons (Scott et al. 2007). While many climate-related factors may directly or indirectly influence visitor use, temperature has been shown to be a stronger predictor of national park visits than other climate variables, such as precipitation (Richardson and Loomis 2004; Scott et al. 2007). Indeed, simple temperature-based models of snow accumulation and melt can simulate observations as well as, if not better than, more complex models that include other climate variables (Franz et al. 2008). Because of the strong seasonality of visitor use in Alaska’s national parks and the expected changes in climate, we conducted a study to identify how historical visitor use relates to temperature to provide context for how future visitor season of use may change at each of three Alaskan national parks under three different climate change scenarios.

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