NPCA is working to ensure coastal national parks are part of the climate solution. The more we protect national park waters from climate impacts now, the more they will protect us and our parks for generations to come.
“From mountain streams to the deep seas, we must protect our waters and the diversity of life they hold as if our lives depend on it — because they do.” – oceanographer Sylvia Earle, a TIME magazine “Heroes for the Planet” and National Parks Second Century Commission member
Healthy oceans and coral reefs are important not only to our national parks, but to the future of our planet. The ocean is a source of joy, wonder and countless other spiritual and mental benefits. It stabilizes the climate, stores carbon and generates 50% of the world’s oxygen. A billion people, including millions of Americans, rely on viable, healthy oceans for their food and livelihoods. Ocean-based tourism and recreation contribute about $124 billion to the U.S. economy each year and employ almost 2.4 million Americans. These industries depend on a healthy ocean, clean beaches and abundant fish and wildlife.
Yet for decades, the world’s oceans have literally been “taking the heat” for climate change, absorbing over 90% of the warming and nearly a third of the carbon dioxide from greenhouse gas emissions. We now have oceans that are hotter, more acidic, less productive and increasingly starved of oxygen. This is making our oceans less habitable for fish, whales and other wildlife. More than two-thirds of oceans have been significantly altered by human activity, such as overfishing, oil drilling and other forms of energy extraction. And the ocean’s biodiversity is at risk, with a third of reef-forming corals and more than a third of all marine mammals threatened with extinction.
We’re seeing these climate impacts at national parks at an alarming rate too: rising temperatures, melting glaciers, flooding, shoreline erosion, sea-level rise, extreme storms, coral bleaching and more. The iconic landscapes, ecosystems and cultural and recreational resources we love are in harm’s way.
But, a problem this large and complex presents equally large opportunities for solutions and reasons for hope.
In March, the Biden administration released the nation’s first Ocean Climate Action Plan, which includes a series of agency actions aimed at harnessing the power of oceans to provide solutions to the climate crisis. NPCA joined 65 other environmental organizations and ocean advocates on a report released this month, called Turning U.S. Ocean Climate Policy into Action, which details the Biden administration’s progress in implementing ocean-based climate solutions and highlights priority actions, some of which I discuss below.
June 8 each year is World Ocean Day. More than 10% of America’s coastline is managed by the National Park Service, including kelp forests of the Channel Islands, glaciers in the coastal parks of Alaska, mangrove forests of the Everglades, seashores from Cape Cod to Padre Island, and coral reefs at Virgin Islands National Park.
With 88 park sites along our shores, national parks can play a major role in ocean-climate solutions. Here are three areas where NPCA is working to reinforce our oceans and coasts.
1. Strengthening marine protected areas
Conserving America’s most valuable underwater treasures — whether it’s through national parks, marine national monuments or national marine sanctuaries — preserves biodiversity, protects endangered species, provides recreational and economic opportunities, builds resilience in the face of a changing climate, and strengthens the deep connections communities have with the sea. Creating a network of protected ocean areas provides animals a series of safe habitats as populations shift to escape warming waters, and it helps achieve our nation’s goal of protecting 30% of our oceans by 2030.
What NPCA is doing: NPCA is working to create and expand marine protected areas within and adjacent to national parks and national marine sanctuaries. In doing so, we will improve the health of national park habitats and biodiversity and ensure marine protected areas are managed to maximize climate resiliency.
We are advocating for new national marine sanctuary designations, including the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary off the Central California coast, which would protect blue whales, southern sea otters, and others federally endangered and threatened marine species and more holistically preserve the maritime culture and heritage of the Chumash Peoples.
Other designations include the Pacific Remote Islands expansion and sanctuary designation, which would create the world’s largest protected ocean area (770,000 square miles with pristine reefs and species found nowhere else in the world), while honoring the cultural and historical legacy of Indigenous Pacific Islanders; and the proposed Hudson Canyon National Marine Sanctuary, which would conserve the largest underwater canyon off the Atlantic Coast and sensitive habitat for whales, sea turtles and deep-sea corals.
We are also strengthening conservation of key marine habitats and wildlife populations at Biscayne and Dry Tortugas national parks and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which are part of the only barrier reef in the continental U.S.
2. Enhancing coastal resilience
Coastal national parks, where natural landscapes and historical and cultural structures are on the front lines of climate change impacts, will benefit from climate resilient strategies. According to a report by the National Park Service, more than $40 billion worth of its coastal assets are at risk of sea level rise and extreme storms, including Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor, which inspired the U.S. national anthem, and the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida, which preserves the nation’s oldest masonry fortification.
What NPCA is doing: NPCA helped secure the nation’s largest-ever federal funding package to address climate change in national parks, which Congress passed in August 2022. More specifically, NPCA continues to work with the National Park Service and other officials at Cape Hatteras National Seashore to determine strategies for addressing severe coastal erosion. Already, private homes have collapsed into the ocean and littered the national park shoreline with dangerous debris that is costly and difficult to clean up.
We are advancing nature-based flood mitigation solutions, such as restoring wetlands and reducing concrete and other structural barriers, to protect park resources at Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City and Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas. We also are ensuring park resources are managed and redeveloped more sustainably and resilient to impacts from hurricanes and storm surges at Virgin Islands and Everglades national parks and Padre Island and Gulf Islands national seashores.
3. Conserving and restoring coastal ecosystems that store carbon
“Blue carbon ecosystems” is a term used to describe seagrass beds, mangroves, salt marshes and other tidal wetlands that capture and store atmospheric carbon. These areas store carbon at rates up to 10 times greater than a forest on a per area basis, helping to mitigate the effects of climate change. If we don’t invest in keeping these natural features and instead allow coastal wetlands to become drained and degraded, the stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere.
What NPCA is doing: NPCA has been restoring coastal ecosystems across the country that benefit places such as Everglades and Indiana Dunes national parks and Gateway National Recreation Area, as well as advancing policies that restore wetlands, mangroves and living shorelines to better withstand the worsening impacts of sea level rise and more intense storms.
Our conservation work helps maintain these natural features that capture and hold carbon dioxide, plus this conservation work will protect nearby homes and businesses from erosion and flooding.
Wetlands work like a sponge — a single acre can store about one million gallons of water, and they release floodwaters slowly, reducing downstream damage. For example, a study found that during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, wetlands prevented $625 million in flood damages in the 12 affected coastal states. In the four states with the greatest wetland coverage, wetlands reduced damage by 20% to 30%. Wetland restoration also supports water quality and establishes safe havens for wildlife and nursery areas for fish populations and other critical marine habitat.
It’s daunting to think about something as vast and essential as our oceans being in danger. All of us rely on these waters, not just for the habitats, oxygen and climate protections they provide, but also for their beauty, spiritual significance and other intangible benefits. But through these many protection efforts, we have solid opportunities to improve the health of our oceans — for ourselves, surrounding communities and dependent wildlife. Learn more about how we’re “turning the tide” on the World Ocean Day website.
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About the author
Sarah Gaines Barmeyer Deputy Vice President, Conservation Programs
Sarah Barmeyer is Deputy Vice President for NPCA’s Conservation Programs where she coordinates priority initiatives for water restoration, landscape conservation, wildlife, and clean air.