Report examines climate change in Rocky Mountain National Park
July 1, 2008
Rocky Mountain National Park and the Center of the American West recently released a report on climate change. The report highlights the results of a workshop held in November where experts from around the state came to discuss the anticipated effects that climate change would have on the park’s ecosystems.
Join park research administrator Judy Visty on Thursday, June 19, at 7:30 p.m. in the auditorium at Beaver Meadows Visitor Center at Rocky Mountain National Park to learn more about the report. The program is free and open to the public.
While the western United States has shown sharp warming trends over the past 30 years, climatologists have difficulty predicting the potential climate changes anticipated for the Rocky Mountain National Park area.
Though many agree that the temperature will warm, they do not agree if the area will see an increase in precipitation, a critical element for natural systems like those the park is charged with protecting. Minimum temperatures will likely increase in winter and early spring, causing an earlier snowmelt and reduced snowpack in the park.
The park’s glaciers are shrinking, said Visty, but not at the alarming rate of those in Glacier National Park to the north. Rocky Mountain National Park’s signature alpine tundra is at risk as the underlying ice, called permafrost, melts. Scientists suspect this loss of “stored water” could affect stream flow at lower elevations of the Front Range and cause damage to Trail Ridge Road.
Reduced stream flow may also hinder reproduction of the Greenback Cutthroat Trout, though the native fish favors warmer waters. Aquatic diseases and non-native plants like cheatgrass are more likely to spread with warmer temperatures. Wetlands, centers for biodiversity in the park, are at risk from long term warming, possible reduced precipitation, and human impacts like pollution. There will be fewer pikas and ptarmigan found on the alpine tundra. Species that do not rely on a specific habitat, like elk and coyote, should fare well with warmer temperatures. Park
Superintendent Vaughn Baker said, “It will be vital for park staff to continue to learn about the impacts of climate change in Rocky Mountain National Park. As we learn more, adaptive management in the park will continue to be critical.”
The park will see what scientists call “novel communities,” or new collections of plants and animals making up its ecosystems. This means park managers will need to redefine what a healthy ecosystem actually is.
“The challenge,” said Visty, “will be to balance the inevitable transformations associated with climate change with the National Park Service mission to preserve resources in perpetuity.”
The park produced the report in cooperation with the Center of the American West at University of Colorado, Boulder, which takes as its mission the creation of forums for the respectful exchange of ideas and perspectives in the pursuit of solutions to the region’s difficulties. This is the second report on climate change the Center has facilitated. To download the report, visit the Center of the American West at http://www.centerwest.org or Rocky Mountain National Park at http://www.nps.gov/romo.