Environmental Issues: Wildlands

Crown Jewels at Risk: Global warming threatens western national parks
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“My biggest concern about global warming is biological surprises. We have such a rudimentary understanding of how species interact with climate. I am concerned about the rapid changes, species crashes or species outbreaks — the things we don't know about yet.”

— Dr. Philip Mote, Climate Impacts Group at the 
University of Washington and Washington's state climatologist
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Olympic National Park
Mount Rainier National Park
North Cascades National Park

Swift, icy waters, heavenly valleys and a wild coastline define this region, but in a warmer world, some of these iconic features will look drastically different.

Any soggy hiker who has plodded through Cascadia can be forgiven for thinking the region will never have a problem with water. Water drips from the canopy of old growth forests. It falls from low-slung clouds that shroud the ridgelines. It collects in snowfields that straddle jagged mountain peaks, and it rushes down waterfalls and creeks in the spring runoff. But global warming threatens to disrupt the flows and pathways that water has taken in three critical parks in the region -- Olympic, Mount Rainier and North Cascades. Those who rely on the parks will be placed under pressure to adapt, from salmon searching for coldwater streams to hikers seeking refuge in damp forests.

Receding Glaciers Leave Streams Thirsty

Glaciers are responsible for the gorgeous chiseled peaks of Cascadia as well as for feeding countless streams in the region. Now that global warming has thrown glacier melting into fast forward, we could lose some of those streams as well as the glaciers. In North Cascades National Park, experts estimate that some streams get about half of their late-summer flow from glaciers. But since 1959, the glaciers have lost 80 percent of their ice, and in the Thunder Creek watershed, receding glaciers have already reduced summer streams by 31 percent. Endangered salmon that spawn downstream will feel this loss first, but other fish species will also suffer. And other parks will confront this as well. At Mount Rainier National Park, the mountain's glaciers lost 21 percent of their area between 1913 and 1994; and in Olympic National Park, glacier retreat has been recorded for Blue Glacier and others.

Olympic National Park

Lighter Snowfall Endangers Mountain Meadows

Paradise Valley's wide-open expanse of meadows, brilliantly colored wildflowers and unparalleled views of Rainier's summit make it the most visited spot in Mount Rainier National Park. The valley owes its special character to the heavy snows and short growing season that keep the meadows clear of trees. But higher temperatures could enable trees to take over the meadows, as well as prevent wildflowers from growing. This process is not limited to Paradise Valley. Scientists have already detected a loss of mountain meadows on both the wetter west and dryer east sides of Olympic National Park.

Warming Streams Limit Salmon and Trout Fishing

Despite the twin threats of overfishing and habitat loss, this is still salmon country. The mighty Hoh River in Olympic National Park is home to ocean-going Chinook and coho salmon. The Skagit River Watershed reaching through North Cascades National Park is the only watershed in the country that still has all Pacific salmon species, as well as prize-sized steelhead and cutthroat trout. Anglers can try their hand against these iconic species -- that is, as long as the runs survive. Global warming is likely to increase water temperatures to dangerous levels for these acutely sensitive coldwater fish. In the Fraser River downstream of Jasper National Park in Canada, for instance, salmon have suffered 50 percent mortality in several runs during years with warmer than normal water temperatures. Streams and spawning grounds in Olympic and North Cascades could see a similar drop in fish.

Rising Sea Levels Threaten Coastline

While only the hardiest of souls will want to swim in the frigid waters off Olympic National Park, everyone can enjoy the rugged beauty of this coastline. Rising sea levels brought on by global warming, however, threaten this unique landscape. The U.S. Geological Survey has rated more than half of Olympic's 65 miles of coastline at high risk from rising seas. Likely changes include coastal erosion and submerged wetlands and estuaries. Especially vulnerable are Shi Shi, Rialto and Ruby beaches. Cultural treasures are also at risk. Petroglyphs carved into shoreline rocks and shell middens left behind by tribes could become swallowed by the sea. And now that the bluff overlooking Kalaloch Beach is eroding and may collapse, the Park Service is making plans to move Kalaloch Lodge and nearby historic cabins back from the bluff.

Photos: © Corbis

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