Will Climate Change Sink Your Favorite Park?

May 30, 2018
An image from a newly released National Park Service report shows simulated flooding caused by a category three hurricane striking Theodore Roosevelt Island in Washington, D.C. Image: National Park Service

TipSheet: Will Climate Change Sink Your Favorite Park?

Psst! Like a racy novel censored then released unexpurgated on the street, a new National Park Service report makes for some good stories and perhaps a raised eyebrow.

Despite its decidedly unsexy title, “Sea Level Rise and Storm Surge Projections for the National Park Service,” the document was the subject of a mighty struggle as Trump administration politicos tried to edit out mentions of climate change in the report. Scientists who wrote it, however, thought such language appropriate, since climate change impacts were its intended subject.

The result was an impasse over salty (or at least saltwater) language that delayed publication of the report until its suppression was revealed by journalist Elizabeth Shogren in the investigative outlet Reveal. An embarrassed National Park Service finally released the uncensored text on May 21.

That itself is a story. But more importantly, as summer starts and millions of Americans spend summer vacation days at the many units of the National Park System that line the U.S. coasts, the effects of climate change and sea level rise are already changing visitors’ experience.

So there are a flock of local and regional stories waiting to be written, and the formerly suppressed report can help.

First, find the report here. The main idea is that warming global climate is already causing sea level rise, and will accelerate it in coming years. This is science. It is not controversial, unless perhaps you own a coal company. Sea level rise, in turn, intensifies other phenomena like storm surge, tidal flooding, erosion and habitat loss.

Remember, not all units of the National Park System, or NPS, are full-on national parks. There are also things like national seashores administered as part of the system. The NPS oversees some 86 ocean and coastal park units and over 12,000 miles of shoreline.

Unique stories across the nation

The real stories come when you get down to cases, because each unit is unique. Here are just a few, ranging up and down the Atlantic Coast, and in the Gulf Coast, the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest:

  • Assateague Island National Seashore. A nearly pristine 37-mile-long barrier island off coastal Virginia, Assateague is a mecca for surfers and sun-worshippers, seafood lovers and wild-pony enthusiasts. Part of a larger complex of state and federal parks and refuges, it is where the feral horses of “Misty of Chincoteague” live. Rising seas and tropical storms are already transforming it, to the point where the NPS is having to re-engineer roads, campgrounds and parking lots. Land subsidence is making sea level rise effects worse. After Hurricane Sandy’s devastation, the park started trying to accommodate the encroaching sea rather than resist it.
  • Gateway National Recreation Area. Gateway is a getaway park located in New York and New Jersey at the mouth of the Lower Hudson Bay — within reach of an urban multi-megalopolis where many millions live. The actual park is an administrative unit consisting of several sites in this area: Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and Jamaica Bay and Staten Island in New York City. Camping, bird-watching and swimming are popular. Climate change was already affecting Gateway before Hurricane Sandy hit. Sea level rise is just one of the problems.
  • Big Cypress National Preserve. Big Cypress is not only close to the huge population in the Miami area, but it is also an ecological neighbor of the larger Everglades National Park. Most of Big Cypress is an inland swamp (or wetland forest) — a draining point for the slow river of freshwater that crosses South Florida, but also a support for the coastal estuaries. It is biologically rich, and home to the Seminoles, who still live there. Hurricane Irma, which did record-breaking damage in Florida, tracked a bit west of Big Cypress. But inundation from the storm surge reached into the preserve. Damage to Big Cypress was significant, but the wetland absorbed the high water and hurricane-force winds.
  • Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This gem is not on the sea, but on the shore of a remote northern part of Lake Michigan. The immense sand dunes highlight a lovely camping and recreation spot. The levels of Lake Michigan and other Great Lakes are not influenced directly by sea level rise — but they do vary with some climate factors. Lake Michigan does have a deep climate connection. The Great Lakes area was covered by mile-high glaciers during the last Ice Age, which ended a mere 11,000 years ago. The lakes were carved out by the glaciers and remained when they melted. What’s more, much of the Great Lakes land area is still rebounding from the crushing weight of the glaciers.
  • Padre Island National Seashore. Padre Island belongs to a chain of barrier islands off the Texas Gulf Coast. It shelters coastal cities like Corpus Christi from the full force of hurricane and storm surge. The park itself protects some 70 miles of this coastline. It includes a serious beach, and is a notorious spring break destination for the region’s college students. Camping, wildlife and history are featured. Of course it is vulnerable to storm surge which will be amplified by sea level rise. The big question is whether the island will change or disappear.
  • Olympic National Park. Although much of this spectacular park in Washington state is inland, in mountains and forests, it is surrounded by water. Its climate vulnerabilities may be more about its glaciers. While most of the coastline of the Olympic Peninsula is not really included in the park, it is an attraction to park visitors. The park does include some slivers of exposed coastline, such as Kalaloch and Ruby Beach. The offshore area encompasses the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, which includes some islands.

Climate a well-known threat to parks

Strikingly, in trying to suppress the report, the Trump team were not clever enough to realize that the climate change in parks story was already out the barn door some years ago. This makes writing your story easier.

But don’t expect the newly released report to write your story for you. It is somewhat dry and full of numbers, albeit numbers that are important because they describe the amount of sea level rise and inundation that can be expected.

In addition, many park system units have web pages and printed interpretation materials that describe in great detail the climate change impacts that have already occurred and are expected to occur. Even censorship hasn’t hidden the fact, for instance, that Glacier National Park is losing its glaciers. Visit your local or regional parks and talk to the staff there.

Also, the NPS did a few major climate impact studies in recent years that were not censored. One is “Adapting To Climate Change in Coastal Parks,” which it published in 2015. The NPS worked on, and published, a broader study of climate impacts on parks in 2014 (plain-English translation here).

The NPS still has coastal adaptation and climate change response programs, which may be worth trying to talk to. And the U.S. Geological Survey has done a lot of study of climate impacts on parks, including coastal ones.

While you’re writing about coastal parks, you might also want to think about some other threats like offshore drilling. The Trump administration has been pushing a drill-every-coast (may require subscription) policy, although it has proven chillingly unpopular in most coastal states.

If it were to happen, coastal parks would be at risk of spills, especially since the Trump administration has also revoked spill-prevention rules (may require subscription) .

You might check out the new “Spoiled Parks” report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and National Parks Conservation Association.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 22. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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