camera icon © TANDEM STILLS + MOTION/SUE ANNE HODGES

Winter 2016

Warm With A Chance Of Crowds

By Katherine McKinney
Winter 2016: Warm With A Chance Of Crowds

A study forecasts how climate change could affect national park visitation.

A polar bear stands stoically on a small ice floe. Haunting music builds as the frame expands to encompass the surroundings: the azure blue of an endless, unfrozen ocean. A somber voice explains the present realities of our melting ice caps and the future we can expect for our warming planet.

This is the sad, familiar face of climate change. We’ve seen the documentaries and read the news stories. We know about severe storms and droughts, sea-level rise, and shifting habitats. It should be no surprise that, in the coming years, these changes will acutely affect public lands. What might come as a shock, however, is how warmer temperatures could lead more people to explore national parks.

Using nearly four decades of visitation data amassed by the National Park Service, employees with the agency’s Natural Resource Stewardship and Science Directorate recently plotted park visitation alongside historical average monthly temperatures at 340 parks. The results surprised them: Visitation at the majority of parks tracked the mercury reading even more closely than they expected. Basically, warmer air correlated with more visitors—at least until temperatures reached the 70s. Curious about how the hotter weather expected by 2050 would influence visitor numbers, the authors projected park visitation into the future. Their projections indicate that mid-century temperatures could be accompanied by a significant increase in annual visitor numbers in many parks and a busy season that is up to one month longer.

For Nicholas Fisichelli, an ecologist and lead author of the study, the message is clear: “Based on warming, you’re likely to see more visitors in your park for a longer period during the year.” Summer visitation at Wyoming’s Grand Teton and Maine’s Acadia National Parks, for example, may rise by more than a third. The projections predict these two parks could experience even bigger visitation jumps during other seasons. In Grand Teton, the number of visitors could double during the spring and fall, and Acadia might see an increase in winter traffic. Overall, the study showed that total annual visitation across all park sites could increase between 8 and 23 percent.

DIVERSITY MATTERS

The National Park System proved to be a useful and unique data source for this study because of parks’ geographic diversity. The parks range across 150 degrees of longitude and 80 degrees of latitude and experience a variety of climates.

Notable exceptions to the general trend include parks with little annual fluctuation in temperature, such as Hawaii’s Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park. Other outliers are those sites already on the warm end of the spectrum. At Everglades National Park in Florida, for example, further warming might push people indoors to the comfort of air conditioning. Arches National Park, too, is predicted to experience a slight decline in park-goer numbers during Utah’s hot summer season, counterbalanced by a swelling of visitors during winter. In general, as monthly average temperatures approach and exceed 77 degrees, visitation plateaus and then wanes.

Though focused on the future, the findings aren’t just a matter for the next generation to worry about, park staff say. Anyone who has idled in a park traffic jam or struggled to snap a stranger-free photo at a crowded viewpoint has felt first-hand the growing pains of a park scrambling to keep up with an adoring public. And overcrowding is not limited to a few of the best-known parks. Nationwide, annual visitation at parks is on the rise. The number of recreational visits to national parks in 2014—a whopping 292.8 million—exceeded 2013’s total by more than 19 million.

“The biggest single challenge facing Acadia right now is our popularity,” said Sheridan Steele, the former superintendent who retired this fall. Last summer, he said, some days were just “crazy.” Roads were gridlocked, parking lots overflowed, and overtaxed shuttle buses provided free rides for up to 9,000 passengers daily. Park rangers were forced to close one of the park’s most sought-after destinations, Cadillac Mountain, when congestion threatened visitor safety and challenged their ability to manage the crowds.

Subscribe to

National Parks

You can read this and other stories about history, nature, culture, art, conservation, travel, science and more in National Parks magazine. Your tax-deductible membership donation of $25 or more entitles…

See more ›

Mark Miller, chief of Resource Stewardship and Science for the Southeast Utah Group of parks, called the research “interesting” but noted that “Arches and Canyonlands already are experiencing visitation growth rates that are comparable to those predicted.” On Memorial Day, in fact, the Utah Highway Patrol shut the main entrance to Arches because the line of waiting cars had backed onto a nearby highway.

In light of current pressures, many park managers are taking measures to adjust to increased visitor demands. Concerned about traffic and public safety, Acadia staff recently initiated a transportation study. Similarly, the staff of Arches is considering everything from a shuttle service to a timed-entry ticket system to remedy congestion. Administrators of Yosemite in California and Shenandoah in Virginia have recently tried raising entrance and campground fees.

Gregor Schuurman, an ecologist and co-author of the study, said he and his colleagues on the Climate Adaptation Team have been speaking with park staff across the country about creative ways to adapt to shifts in visitation. A longer shoulder season (spring and fall for most parks) could enable staff to offer new activities. Perhaps, in anticipation of warmer weather, park roads could be cleared of lingering snow and ice and opened earlier in the spring. And at parks where visitor numbers could decline due to the midday heat, he suggested that rangers might consider planning more nighttime activities focused on astronomy or nocturnal animals.

Schuurman noted that many park managers’ concerns are budgetary and often boil down to crises with bathrooms and parking lots. Between the costs of daily operation and an existing $11.5 billion deferred maintenance backlog, parks don’t have the funding to handle the crowds. There actually is a simple solution, he pointed out: “Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice if Congress would give us a bigger budget?” But that, he said, is “pie in the sky.”

About the author

Read more from NPCA