National Park Service Sees Vegetation Shift

July 28, 2014

(Courtesy of Patrick Gonzalez)
Map of vulnerability to vegetation shifts in North America.

The National Park System protects some of the most beautiful and fragile ecosystems in the country. But those landscapes may start changing.

A new report released Monday states climate change and development are forcing vegetation to shift, moving higher in elevation and northward. The report highlights that up to a quarter of the U.S. National Park Service is at risk to vegetation shifting up-slope or northward due to climate change and human development.

As lower elevations experience average temperature increases and loss of vegetation due to development, plants tend to follow cooler temperatures found in higher elevations and northern latitudes. Co-author Patrick Gonzalez, Ph.D, Climate Change Scientist for the National Park Service, highlighted the findings.

“Globally, one third to one half of the world’s vegetated area is highly vulnerable to these types of shifts," Gonzalez said. "We zoomed in on the U.S. National Park Service and found that one quarter of the area of the 401 national parks is highly vulnerable.”

Arizona houses 22 national parks that generated more than $770 million in economic benefit and saw more than 10 million visitors in 2013. The shift in vegetation can alter the landscape of many of those parks, especially in higher elevations such as ecologically diverse Grand Canyon.

“For Grand Canyon specifically, the desert will tend to shift up into piñon-juniper, and the piñon-juniper will shift up into Ponderosa and you will have tree mortality where those biomes meet," Gonzalez said.

The study also found many areas of biodiversity exist on protected land, although only 1 to 2 percent of the world’s vegetation is found in potential refugia in currently protected areas.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been modified to reflect the proper spelling of Patrick Gonzalez's name, and that the 1 to 2 percent of the world's vegitation is found in potential refugia in currently protected areas.

Updated 7/30/2014 at 10:27 a.m.