This summer, an estimated 4 million visitors will trek through Yosemite National Park in California. They will circle through the valley, crane their necks at Half Dome, pause for the grazing wildlife and traverse a portion of the 800 miles of trails. Along the way, they might notice the stark silhouette of burned-out pine trees, blackened and skeletal, a sign that the wildfire burn area across the western United States, including the country’s third-oldest park, has doubled since 1984.
Similarly, visitors to Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska might notice the diminished size of the stately Muir Glacier, which lost the height of One World Trade Center. And those hiking through the Western United States, down the Rocky Mountains and into North Cascades National Park in Washington state will note the lowest average 20-year snowpack in the past eight centuries.
These wild places, the refuges we seek out for their fresh air, towering pines and crystalline glaciers, are bearing the brunt of the climate crisis, according to leading researchers.
“When people go to national parks, people who vacation will be witnessing the consequences of human-caused climate change,” said Patrick Gonzalez, a principal climate-change scientist with the National Park Service. “It brings people closer to the real impact.”
Gonzalez, who is also a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, headed up a study that analyzed the climate in and near national parks since 1895. The results were stark: Human-caused climate change exposed the national parks to hotter and drier conditions than in the rest of the United States, according to Gonzalez.
From 1895 to 2010, Gonzalez’s research found, human-caused climate change increased the temperature in national parks by 1.1 degrees Celsius, or double the rate of the United States as a whole.
Gonzalez’s research was included in a recent report by the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy organization for the Park Service. The report, which relied on data from a number of other studies, was aimed at giving a comprehensive look at the harm climate change has on ecosystems.
“Overall, we identified that 96 percent of national parks are suffering from air pollution,” said Stephanie Kodish, senior director of clean air and climate with the NPCA.
This poor air quality can have wide-reaching public health impacts. Ozone, which the Environmental Protection Agency uses to measure air pollutants, is linked to health risks and poor visibility. The health risks include shortness of breath, coughing, asthma and chronic bronchitis, and long-term exposure can cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to the EPA’s warnings.
A recent review of ozone levels in 33 parks from 1990 to 2014 found ozone was deemed unhealthy by the EPA on 35 percent of visitor days. A large number of people are visiting these parks when the pollution is particularly harmful, according to David Keiser, an author of the study.
“We see parks as being these pristine areas you want to get away to,” Keiser said. But when he and his fellow researchers, Gabriel Lade and Ivan Rudik, studied the air quality, they found it was statistically indistinguishable from a major metropolitan area.
Their research found ozone levels were improving in major metro areas in the early 1990s, thanks in large part to the Clean Air Act of 1990, which was one of the first air-quality laws. But the air pollution in national parks was worsening during this time, according to Keiser.
“These places we think have fresh air, sometimes these areas can have high levels of air pollution,” he said.
If this rate of carbon output and air pollution continues, temperatures in national parks will increase by as much as nine degrees Celsius in a worst-case scenario, Gonzalez says.
“Cutting carbon pollution can save parks from the most extreme heat,” Gonzalez said.
While visitors can take steps to minimize their carbon output, Kodish stressed the importance policy has in protecting public lands. “We encourage parkgoers to engage in the rulemaking process,” she said. “It’s really critical that parkgoers express their love of these places.”
According to Kodish, the EPA under the Trump administration has taken steps to roll back crucial air and climate regulations enacted to curb greenhouse emissions.
The Park Service, perhaps confronted with the realities of a changing climate long before others, has taken steps to lessen the negative consequences a high volume of human traffic could have. It routinely monitors air-quality information and provides some of the longest available data sets to researchers and scientists. In recent years, parks have created solar-energy programs, opted to use less fossil fuel, installed electric-car charging stations and provided shuttle buses to visitors.
“The parks have been doing their part for years,” Gonzalez said.
Take Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Named for the natural blue mist that is common along the Appalachian mountain range, it is the most densely visited park in the country. In 2018, 11.4 million visitors traversed its scenic highways and hiking trails.
That’s almost double the 6.4 million people who visited the second-most-popular park, Grand Canyon National Park.
Yet, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the park was violating conditions set by the EPA for human health. It failed to meet the ozone public health standard for hundreds of days over a 10-year span, according to Jim Renfro, air-quality specialist for the park.
When Renfro arrived in 1984, first as a park volunteer and later as a staff member, visibility averaged nine miles during the summer months. The unhealthy air quality and potential public health risks got the attention of a lot of people, he said.
The park began to take steps to mitigate the pollution, first through the Clean Air Act and later the 1999 Regional Haze Rule, which required states to take steps to improve air quality in designated areas such as national parks.
“We’ve been seeing significant improvements in the Smokies,” said Dana Soehn, a spokeswoman for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “That’s not been without a lot of really hard work.”
Renfro credits a lot of that improvement to the reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions from power plants near the park and the implementation of cleaner fuel and engine standards. Combining data from the park’s air-quality monitoring system with collaboration at the local, state and federal levels, Renfro said, the park was able to lower the air pollution in about a decade. It’s a system he believes could work throughout the rest of the country.
“It’s a remarkable story of turning something around when people thought it could never change,” Renfro said.
If similar steps are taken on a national level to prioritize the use of renewable energy and other sustainable practices, it could reduce the potential heating in the national parks by two-thirds, according to Gonzalez.
On any given day this summer, visitors will see the Smoky Mountains rolling along the horizon with at least 40 miles of visibility.
"Now the norm is blue sky and green mountains,” Renfro said.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story described the snowpack in North Cascades National Park as the lowest in eight centuries. That snowpack is measured by 20-year averages and covered a large area around the Rocky Mountains, including the North Cascades.