Don’t put off that trip to Mount Rainier National Park much longer. Our beloved mountain is changing in ways that could severely restrict or curtail public access to the park in the years ahead. The culprit is climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions that are the result of human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels.
Our national parks are among the first places to feel the effects of a warming earth, and Mount Rainier is no exception. For instance, Mount Rainier’s magnificent glaciers are melting at six times their historical rate.
The melting glaciers have triggered glacial outbursts, sending water and rock cascading down from high on the mountain, choking rivers with sediment, knocking out roads and bridges, threatening historical national park buildings and submerging ancient forests. There’s reason to believe the problem will only grow worse as the temperatures rise, and the severity of spring and fall rainstorms continue to intensify.
Two of the park’s most popular roads – the Carbon River and the Westside – have already succumbed to floods and debris flows. Sections of the Nisqually Road between the park’s Nisqually entrance and Longmire could be next to go in the face of the melting Nisqually Glacier, which has receded an average of 140 feet per year over the past decade. There’s not enough money in the budget to just keep rebuilding roads in harm’s way.
If climate science predictions are accurate, the warming temperature will alter the mountain ecosystems. The lush alpine and subalpine meadows and the butterflies, wildflowers, mammals and insects that live there could be overrun by encroaching forests, non-native species and disease. Species in delicate balance with winter freezes and spring thaws could lose their habitat niches as the climate on the mountain changes. The alpine meadows can’t simply move higher on the mountain, because rock at higher altitudes is no substitute for the soil they need.
Park managers struggle to respond to the challenge of climate change. It’s not clear what they are supposed to do. Chronic underfunding of studies to better understand climate change and geologic hazards in the park make matters worse.
As long as members of Congress remain divided over climate change, it’s going to be next to impossible to find money for the national parks system to respond in any meaningful way.
Our national parks represent case studies of a changing earth. If climate change continues as predicted, the glaciers at Glacier National Park in Montana will be gone in 30 years. The Joshua trees at Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California could disappear.
At the very least, what’s happening at Mount Rainier National Park and the other federally protected lands across the country should be a wake up call: Our fossil fuel-based economy must change in dramatic, sustainable ways with a corresponding sharp decrease in carbon dioxide emissions. Time is running out on our national parks as we know them. In the years ahead, Mount Rainier National Park could become an unstable, dangerous place, off-limits to visitors, and our magnificent park relegated to the history books. That would be an unbearable sorrow.