Masthead banner of Park Science: Integrating Research and Resource Management in the National Parks; ISSN 1090-9966; link to current issue
Volume 28
Number 3
Winter 2011-2012
Arrowhead symbol of the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior
Home + About + Author Guidelines + Archive + Subscribe +  
Invited feature Invited Feature
Climate change: Wilderness’s greatest challenge

By Nathan L. Stephenson and Constance I. Millar
Published: 4 Sep 2015 (online)  •  14 Sep 2015 (in print)
The Wilderness Act in the era of rapid climatic changes
Classes of actions to consider
Planning considerations
Acknowledgments and literature cited
About the authors
+ PDF +

Some 20,000 years ago, the area that we now know as the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness in Everglades National Park (Florida) was not graced by the sprawling “river of grass,” dense mangrove forests, and the rich waters of the Florida Bay. With a sizable amount of Earth’s water locked up in continental ice caps, the present bay was high and dry, the nearest ocean shore was miles away, and the land supported pine woodlands and scrub. On the other side of the continent, the parched salt flats of today’s Death Valley Wilderness (California) were drowned under a 600-foot-deep (183 m) lake. The Yosemite Wilderness’s (California) stately forests, lush meadows, and high mountain lakes were buried under hundreds of feet of ice.

What a difference a few degrees can make! The dramatic changes described in the preceding paragraph accompanied a Pleistocene-to-the-present global warming of about 4° to 7°C (Jansen et al. 2007). Yet Earth is now poised to undergo another round of warming of comparable magnitude. Current projections indicate that a further 4° to 6°C global warming could be reached by as early as the end of this century (IPCC 2007), when global temperatures could exceed any reached in the last several million years. Earth has already gained about 0.6°C since 1975, and the pace of warming is expected to accelerate. Even the relatively modest warming so far has affected hydrology, fire regimes, and biota in national parks and wildernesses (Gonzalez 2011). The message is clear: In the coming decades wilderness seems certain to face its greatest stewardship challenge yet, in the form of profound climatic and other global changes.

Wilderness stewards must determine how best to respond to this greatest of challenges, and the goal of this article is to help them by offering relevant ideas and provoking discussion. First, we briefly reexamine the Wilderness Act in the light of rapid climatic changes, and conclude that stewards will be forced to confront trade-offs that were not anticipated by the act’s authors—trade-offs that will be accompanied by increasing impetus for management intervention in wilderness. Next, we briefly outline four broad classes of management actions (or inaction) that wilderness stewards might consider in their efforts to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Finally, we highlight some considerations for planning in the face of rapid climatic changes.

Return to top

This page updated:  6 February 2012

Page 1 of 7 • Next +
From the Guest Editor(s)
A Wilderness Celebration
At Your Service
Masthead Information
Special Issue: Wilderness Stewardship and Science
A conversation with NPS Director Jonathan B. Jarvis
Using wilderness character to improve wilderness stewardship
Using the “Keeping It Wild” framework to develop a wilderness character monitoring protocol for the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness
Lessons learned: Merging process elements to address wilderness character and user capacity
A database application for wilderness character monitoring
Fires in wilderness in the national parks
Transboundary cooperation to achieve wilderness protection and large landscape conservation
Integrating cultural resources and wilderness character
  Climate change: Wilderness’s greatest challenge
Climate change threatens wilderness integrity
The science of trail surveys
Wilderness visitor experiences
Scientific study and enduring wilderness
The hidden consequences of fire suppression
Using acoustical data to manage for solitude in wilderness areas
Creating exploratory maps for wilderness impact surveys: Applications in campsite searches
Spiritual outcomes of wilderness experience
Remote sensing of heritage resources for research and management
Managing overnight stock use at Yosemite National Park
Economic impacts of search-and-rescue operations on wilderness management in the national parks
Through the looking glass: What value will we see in wilderness in 2064?
Related Publications + Explore Nature + + Privacy + Disclaimer + Contact Editor
Web Site Last Updated: 16 September 2015