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Volume 26
Number 1
Spring 2009
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White Mountains, California, one of the more than 40 alpine observatories that are part of the Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments. (Constance I. Millar, USDA Forest Service) Biological Sciences
The rock and ice problem in national parks: An opportunity for monitoring climate change impacts
By Andrew G. Bunn
Published: 4 Sep 2015 (online)  •  14 Sep 2015 (in print)
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IN 1979, ALFRED RUNTE ADVANCED THE WORTHLESS-LANDS THESIS (Runte 1979). This loosely posits that the National Park System comprises lands with low economic, and subsequently low ecological, value. The concept is controversial in some respects, but many alpine researchers have acknowledged the “rock and ice problem” in national parks. Certainly, scenic alpine vistas are overrepresented in national park units compared with low-elevation areas with higher primary production, species diversity and richness, and complex ecosystem structure. The National Park Service has a unique chance to use the rock and ice problem as an advantage in understanding climate change, which might be the greatest challenge scientists and society have ever faced (Speth 2005).

Locator map showing National Park System units and adjacent areas in the western conterminous United States that contain extensive alpine areas.

Cartographer: Jacob Tully, Western Washington University, Geography Department.

Figure 1. National Park System units in the western conterminous United States contain extensive alpine areas and span maritime-to-arid ecosystems over a dozen degrees of latitude. As part of a suite of high-elevation, protected areas, extensive alpine sites adjacent to park boundaries are managed by the USDA Forest Service and other agencies. Projection: Albers Equal Area Conic, NAD 83. Data sources: USDA Forest Service, National Park Service, ESRI, U.S. National Atlas.

The fundamental physics of an enhanced greenhouse effect due to fossil fuel combustion is well understood, and Earth is warming (IPCC 2007). Considerable uncertainty exists regarding the impacts of climate change, but high latitudes and high elevations are thought to be leading indicators of future trends. The suite of high-elevation lands protected by the National Park Service is ideal in terms of documenting and monitoring the physical, .oral, and faunal impacts of climate change. Indeed, the network of alpine lands managed by the Park Service in the mountainous western United States spans maritime-to-arid ecosystems over a dozen degrees of latitude (fig. 1, above). The web grows even farther if we consider alpine park units in Hawaii, Alaska, and the eastern United States. It is a network that has no other analog and offers unparalleled opportunities for global change monitoring.

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This page updated:  9 July 2009

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From the Guest Editor(s)
In This Issue
Information Crossfile
Book Reviews
Masthead Information
The Canon National Parks Science Scholars Program: A legacy of science for national parks
Science for parks / parks for science: Conservation-based research in national parks
  The rock and ice problem in national parks: An opportunity for monitoring climate change impacts
1,000 feet above a coral reef: A seascape approach to designing marine protected areas
Management strategies for keystone bird species: The Magellanic woodpecker in Nahuel Huapi National Park, Argentina
Climate change and water supply in western national parks
Mercury in snow at Acadia National Park reveals watershed dynamics
Organic pollutant distribution in Canadian mountain parks
Building an NPS training program in interpretation through distance learning
Musical instruments in the pre-Hispanic Southwest
Societal dynamics in grizzly bear conservation: Vulnerabilities of the ecosystem-based management approach
Linking wildlife populations with ecosystem change: State-of-the-art satellite ecology for national-park science
Whale sound recording technology as a tool for assessing the effects of boat noise in a Brazilian marine park
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