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Study Suggests Global Warming Threatens National Park System

By James Gerstenzang
Los Angeles Times

In a largely overlooked but potentially alarming development in the debate over global warming, a study released Tuesday by a well-respected international environmental group warns that increasing temperatures are threatening the United States' national parks and wildlife areas.

From the heights of the American glaciers to the California seashore, from the Everglades to the Arctic, the changing climate is bringing noticeable shifts in forest and wildflower meadows, and in sea and shorebird numbers, according to the report by the World Wildlife Fund.

The study adds a new, closer-to-home element to the pressure being put on the Clinton administration to restrict U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases. Other industrialized nations attending a global environmental summit in New York already are pushing Washington to adopt a more stringent position; many - but not all - scientists blame global warming on growing emissions of greenhouse gases.

"The effects of global warming are not merely a future impact in faraway places," the report says. "The first signs of climate change have been detected and can already be seen in our own backyards. Alarmingly, many of North America's most cherished natural areas, the national parks, are clearly feeling the effects of global warming," it says.

Among the impacts reported - or predicted - in the study were these:

Forests are beginning to invade the famed floral-carpeted Alpine meadows of Glacier National Park in Montana, where the retreat of the glacier itself already has been documented. Melting permafrost beneath the surface of national lands in the Alaskan Arctic could become sinkholes, unable to support their meager surface vegetation. And, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a distinct strain of brook trout could become extinct as the cool water along the Tennessee-North Carolina border on which it depends warms ever-so-slightly.

"Warming of the surface layer of the ocean by as much as 1 degrees centigrade in some places since 1951 has led to declines of 80 percent in zooplankton in the California Current," the report says.