As the climate changes the National Park Service is monitoring our resources and developing many different techniques to face this new challenge. At Virgin Islands National Park, coral reefs are dying as sea water warms. Photo by NPS.
"The management implications for protecting species, biological communities, and physical resources within finite land management boundaries in a rapidly changing climate are complex and without precedent." — Jon Jarvis, October 28, 2009
As caretakers of our nation's unique and special places, the National Park Service is facing one of its greatest challenges in responding to climate change. The cultural and natural resources we watch over are among the most vulnerable in the country, but also possess the ability to teach the National Park Service and the public about our changing planet. For it is within parks that we begin to understand the larger questions of where we came from, what is our relationship to nature, and what do we want our future to look like.
The National Park Service must build its capacity to cope with rapid climate change. The issue will require us to think about the effects of climate change in a systems context
. This isn't just one more management issue to add to our list of tasks, but is instead a new way of looking at park management that removes the assumption that the future foundation of the landscape will look mostly like the present one. New management strategies will need to be implemented with an unprecedented level of cooperation across jurisdictional boundaries. Effective conservation will require an even greater emphasis on partnerships and multi-agency collaboration, as well as interdisciplinary teams.
Policy and Planning
The National Park Service (NPS) response to climate change begins by examining policy, planning and decision-making. A former Climate Change Response Steering Committee representing parks, regions, managers, and subject-matter experts provided guidance to the NPS in order to set up a strategic framework of advisors, interagency liaisons, and subcommittees to listen to expert suggestions and formulate recommendations. It served both the Climate Change Response Program (CCRP) and the NPS National Leadership Council and helped develop the Climate Change Response Strategy (5198 KB PDF) which was released in September 2010.
The effects of climate change will impact the ability of the NPS to meet its mission and comply with legal mandates. Most resource protection laws that the NPS must comply with were not written considering a changing climate. For decades we have been striving for "natural" or "historical" conditions in the national parks, but such conditions may be more difficult or impossible to maintain under climate change. Even the concept of naturalness becomes convoluted in an era where human activities play a role in shaping global climate. Should our mandate to leave parks "unimpaired" for future generations reference a historical state, or a future one under an altered climate? As the scope and intensity of climate change increases, these kinds of questions will strain the current policy framework unless revisions are made.
Climate change is creating a new and dynamic decision-making environment in which we cannot assume a continuation of historical patterns. Effective decision-making and planning will require decision support systems that are flexible to shifting conditions. Six principles from the National Research Council have been adapted for the Climate Change Response Strategy:
- begin with managers' needs
- give priority to process and products
- link information providers and users
- build connections across disciplines and organizations
- enhance institutional capacity
- design for learning
Existing planning documents, such as National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review, park general management plans, and park resource stewardship strategies will incorporate climate change into all phases. To allow parks to better cope with uncertainty in future climate conditions, scenario planning
offers an additional approach. When future conditions are uncertain, formulating multiple scenarios and then finding the beneficial actions common to each of the potential futures becomes an efficient approach and will be utilized for park planning. This approach can best be summed up as being prepared—for worst-case scenarios, best-case scenarios, and a range of future alternatives in between.
Four Areas of Emphasis
Although there will always be a need to learn more, we now have sufficient knowledge about climate change to take important steps. Park managers need to determine the extent to which they can and should act to protect the parks' current resources while allowing the parks' ecosystems to adapt to new conditions. The NPS response must be immediate and bold in some areas, methodical and cautious in others, and adaptive to new information and guided by sound science in all cases. Many techniques will be utilized, evaluated, and refined over time until a new science becomes available and the future of climate change unfolds.
Efforts of the NPS Climate Change Response Program are coordinated around four areas of emphasis:
- Using science to help us manage - The National Park Service will uncover and apply the best available climate science. By collaborating with scientific agencies and institutions, we can address the specific needs of park managers and park partners as they confront the challenges of climate change.
- Adapting to an uncertain future - Climate change will alter park ecosystems in fundamental ways. The National Park Service must remain flexible amidst a changing landscape and uncertain future; and swiftly address both natural and human systems when necessary. Scenario planning will be a key tool for adaptation.
- Reducing our carbon footprint - The most effective way to lessen the long-term effects of climate change is to reduce green house gas emissions. The National Park Service should be a leader in reducing its carbon footprint through energy efficient practices and integrating climate-friendly practices into administration, planning, and workforce culture.
- Educating about climate change - National parks are visible examples of how climate change can affect natural and cultural resources. Through clear communication, we will prepare park staff and connect visitors with information concerning the impacts to parks and steps the agency is taking to preserve our heritage.