"Climate change is a huge, transforming, all-encompassing threat to the national parks," Stephen Saunders, founder and president of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, told our Melinda Burns last year.
Just how climate change will affect national parks around the world has been on the minds of environmentalists and park managers for some time. When their concerns reach the public — that of the threat to the country's most iconic parks — melting glaciers at Glacier National Park, for example, or rising water levels at the Everglades are usually invoked.
But the latest in a series of reports from the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and National Resource Defense Council outlined the consequences of climate change on parks ringing the Great Lakes. (The two organizations are nonprofits focused on the environment, with the Rocky Mountain group specifically focused on reducing greenhouse gases and bracing for climate change.)
While perhaps not as engrained in the national consciousness as Yosemite or Yellowstone, the parks examined — Isle Royale National Park and the Indiana Dunes, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Pictured Rocks and Apostle Islands national lake shores — collectively attracted 4 million visitors in 2010. (In comparison, Yellowstone alone sees more than 3 million visitors each year.) These special places stand to lose what makes them such special year-round getaways for the Midwest.
Between 2070-2099, according to the report, summer in the Indiana Dunes could boast temperatures an average of 8 degrees hotter than now, or similar to what Gainesville, Fla., currently experiences. The effects of that increase extend beyond it just being hotter.
For example, there would less ice cover over the lakes in the winter. This could lead to an increase of winter waves that would erode shorelines and damage structures, even destroying the features, like the dunes at Sleeping Bear Dunes, which make the park special. Warmer winters would also cut into or eliminate regional recreation favorites such as ice fishing or skiing. New plants and animals would move in, and existing ones would either move on or become extinct. With its nemesis of bitingly cold winters weakening, kudzu, a fast-growing vine known for overtaking other plant life in the American South, is expected in Indiana in less than a decade. Plants aren't the only species affected by the shifting climate. Isle Royale has already seen a dramatic decrease in its moose and wolf populations. Charismatic animals such as lynx, martens and birds are also at risk.
Besides the effects on the wildlife, the study predicts that visitor enjoyment will drop. The parks could become too hot to visit in the summer months and the temperatures may even become dangerous to people in the form of from increasing ground-level ozone pollutants and attracting more disease-carrying insects.
And while the amount of rain falling in heavy storms is already up by a third from the past century, the report says the balance of water entry and exit from the lake could tip, with lake levels falling 10 to 16 inches.
Hot summers, melting ice and crashing waves don't add up to much individually, but collectively, these changes are a firm warning that we could lose a natural gift often taken for granted.