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Protect Our Parks

How Climate Change Affects Rocky Mountain National Park

While critics have dismissed climate change as a Chinese fabrication or scientific lie, politics are the least problematic of issues at Rocky Mountain National Park

It’s worse than you think.

Rocky Mountain National Park’s 415 square miles of mountains and nature are in danger from the damaging effects of climate change. While critics, including the U.S. president, have dismissed climate change as a Chinese fabrication or scientific lie, politics are the least problematic of issues at Rocky Mountain National Park, according to Max Boykoff, a senior visiting research associate in the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“It’s not simply political issues like abortion or these other social issues,” Boykoff says, “This is based in science. It boils down to scientific evidence and knowing about the problem.”

While the action taken to combat climate change will be political, climate change is already affecting the ecosystem at the park and will worsen if left unchecked, say some scientists.

“In a simple sense, we turned the thermostat way up and the Earth hasn’t warmed up yet because the oceans haven’t completely warmed up,” says James White, a paleoclimatologist and professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. “This is happening and will continue to happen and if we don’t do anything, Rocky will change.”

Pine Beetle Assault In Rocky Mountain National Park

Mountain Pine Beetle
Mountain Pine BeetleiStock

Climate change at Rocky Mountain National Park is a complex problem because it doesn’t create one sole problem for the park but a string of unique and complex problems to tackle. Climate change is affecting everything at Rocky Mountain National Park from the ecosystems, various species and the overall visitor experience.

“If you come up to the park you’ll notice on both the east and west side of the park a lot of dead trees,” says Paul McLaughlin, an ecologist at Rocky Mountain National Park. “Those trees have been largely impacted by bark beetles and more recently spruce beetles. Both are species that are native to the forest of Colorado. They’ve been co-evolving with the forest for over 10,000 years.”

The beetle has impacted over 90 percent of the forest at Rocky Mountain National Park. According to ecologists like McLaughlin, the park’s rising temperature of 3.4 degrees during the period of 1900 to 2010 has exacerbated the pine beetle situation. A cold wave in the 1980s killed off the last pine beetle outbreak. However, more recent warmer winters have caused fewer beetles to die off. Meanwhile, the warmer temperatures create an ideal environment for beetle reproduction seasons.

“Outbreaks of pine bark beetles impact not only the forest of Rocky Mountain National Park but the entire North American West,” says McLaughlin. “And that’s a very tangible example of climate change.”

The Melting Snowpack at Rocky Mountain National Park

Winter snow melting in Rocky Mountain National Park
Winter melting away in Rocky Mountain National Park.NPS/Jacob W Frank

Another side effect of climate change analyzed by scientists at Rocky Mountain is the onset of snow melting two to three weeks earlier in spring than 40 years ago.

“Obviously, that has effects in the sense of how long we have a snowpack on our mountains and if you think of a snowpack being a solid reservoir of water,” McLaughlin says. “It also impacts the timing of water going downstream and the quantity of water going downstream and particularly impacts the late-season availability of water for ecosystems and human uses.”

Climate change creates a massive impact on water availability at Rocky Mountain National Park. The premature melting of the snowbanks creates water supply difficulties for several species that habitat the park. Animals rely on the snowpack for water to survive and dwindling water supplies in the future could negatively impact them. Climate change adversely affects the complex ecosystem at the park from harmonizing.

Pitfalls and the Pika at Rocky Mountain National Park

Pika in Rocky Mountain National Park
Pika in Rocky Mountain National ParkNPS/Jacob W Frank

Climate change significantly changes the environment, which creates a different ecosystem for the species living there. Pika, which is part of the rabbit family but resembles a hamster, only lives at mountainous elevations above 11,000 feet. Pika can die in a few hours if temperatures reach above 70 degrees. With temperatures already rising at the park, the only question is when climate change will detrimentally impact the pika.

“One of our worst case scenarios would be that we could lose the pika population,” says Kyle Patterson, a public affairs officer at Rocky Mountain National Park.

The pika is doing well, but future experimental models indicate the pika could not be around in 50 years.

Cheatgrass vs. Rocky Mountain National Park

Climate change in the park isn’t just affecting old habitats but creating new ones. The changing environment has made it easier for invasive plants to enter and disrupt the ecosystem. Twenty years ago, cheatgrass could only be found at the lowest elevations in the park. Today, scientists at the park find cheatgrass at elevations of 9,500 feet. The plant is an aggressive grass that creates several problems at the park. The grass dominates native vegetation, which alters the landscape. It has sharp seeds that can perforate the stomach and intestines of animals and worst of all, dries and browns quickly, making it ideal tinder for feeding wildfires.

The Future and Solutions For Climate Change?

Solutions in the complex future of climate change for the park are equally complicated and won’t be solved in one fell swoop. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean the future is bleak, according to climate scientists. The staff at the park is working on two objectives: mitigation and adaptation to climate change, which they hope provide tangible examples for the general public on assisting the issue.

“How can we reduce our own carbon footprint and how we can encourage the larger community to reduce their impacts that are facilitating climate change,” says McLaughlin. “We use electric vehicles and have significantly decreased the amount of energy and electricity used to heat our buildings and overall energy consumption in the park.”

Understanding the current inefficiencies at the park play a major role in defending against and easing the ills of climate change. The park has accepted the reality climate change brings, making adapting to climate change crucial.

“An issue we looked at is resilience,” says Patterson. “How can we as park managers assist the park to be more resilient to climate change? We’re communicating to the public, stopping the climate change impacts in the park and also trying to bolster where we can, resiliency in some park species.”

By comprehending the problems of climate change in the future and acting in the moment is pivotal for the well-being of the park. Yet solving climate change doesn’t just happen within our national parks but in our everyday lives, too.

“From a local and individual level the funny thing about climate change is that everything counts,” says Boykoff. “The way which we power our homes, the way we choose to get to work or school, the ways in which business and industry function in our communities, the way food is grown all have an impact on the changing climate.”

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