Sinking Parks | The Many Impacts Of Climate Change – National Parks Traveler

Climate change and the parks
National Park Travel
Help power the National Parks Traveler’s coverage of national parks and protected areas.
Darkness veils the turtle as it slings large scoops of sand with its hind flippers to excavate a nest above the high tide line at Cumberland Island National Seashore off Georgia’s southern coast. Once satisfied with the task, she deposits 100 or more golf-ball-sized eggs into the hole, shovels protective sand back into it and plods back out to sea.
Repeating the labor-intensive process several times per season, the loggerhead sea turtle will lay up to 500 eggs in a year, a substantial progeny until you consider that only one of every 1,000 reaches adulthood. The young have long been prey for a range of mammals, gulls and sharks, but the latest threat to these and other sea turtles nesting in the Southeast’s national seashores is the deadliest yet: climate change.
Rising sea levels and more potent storms have prompted crews at Cumberland Island to relocate egg nests farther up the beach line with hopes they avoid being washed away, and sands that are growing increasingly hot under climate change are skewing the sex ratios of hatchlings in favor of females. Birth defects also are increasing, possibly being baked in by the hot sand.
“Cleft palates, incomplete intestines, things like that,” said Dr. Sarah Milton, a biologist at Florida Atlantic University who studies how environmental stressors affect animal physiology and specifically how climate change is impacting sea turtles. “It’s most likely related to temperature. That’s the correlation. But what the temperature does to the actual development, I don’t know if we know that yet.”
Sea turtles, already listed as either a threatened or endangered species in the United States, are just one species being adversely impacted by climate change and its habitat alterations. Bird species like Red knots and piping plovers. Right whales that calve off Cumberland Island and other southeastern shores. Vegetation succumbing to seawater intrusion.
And it’s not just the natural world that’s suffering.
Hurricane Irma flooded Fort Pulaski National Monument in the fall of 2017/National Park Foundation
Along 1,600 miles of the Eastern Seaboard, from Maine to Florida, those climatological alterations are challenging the National Park Service to figure out how best to protect wildlife and their habitats, as well as historic structures, archaeological sites, modern infrastructure, landscapes, and, of course, visitors.
“The National Park Service is actively aware and actively preparing for this new climate change from everything from the coastal parks to the interior parks,” said James Purcell, the agency’s acting National Search and Rescue and Emergency Management Services director. “It’s very much a high priority for the National Park Service.”
From Acadia National Park in Maine to Everglades National Park in Florida the National Parks Traveler in the coming months will examine impacts tied to climate change and how the National Park Service is responding to them. We’ll bring you the concerns of residents and communities that are left with the damage from hurricanes and the loss of tax revenues from tourism and trace the strain these events have on the Park Service staff and budget.
North Atlantic Right Whales are among the species being challenged by warming oceans and other climate change impacts/NOAA
Our writers will see how more intense storms are impacting erosion, ask if the value of “natural capital” held within the parks’ natural resources is declining, and identify some of the historic and cultural sites at risk; not just from storm damage, but literally from being washed away. We’ll identify the risks wildlife face as some of their most protected habitat — that within the National Park System — is put at risk.
The Traveler’s project comes in what’s projected to be a particularly challenging summer — damaging and costly for the Park Service because of a hurricane season predicted to be above normal. Forecasters anticipate possibly 25 “named” storms, maybe 13 that will grow into hurricanes, with perhaps seven “major” hurricanes carrying winds above 111 mph.
The year’s first hurricane, and among the earliest ever to form, was Beryl, which materialized in the Atlantic Ocean on July 3. It charged across the Caribbean Sea and into the Gulf of Mexico, reaching Padre Island National Seashore on the Texas coast on July 8.
Recent hurricane seasons have proved costly for the agency. The 2017 hurricanes of Harvey (Gulf Coast), Irma, and Maria (both Atlantic storms) led to Congress being asked to provide nearly $300 million in disaster relief to the Park Service, while 2012’s Hurricane Sandy (aka Super Storm Sandy) prompted supplemental appropriations of nearly $385 million ($348 million via supplemental appropriation and $35 million from the Interior secretary’s discretionary fund) to the Park Service.
Alex DaSilva, the lead hurricane forecaster for AccuWeather, explained to the Traveler that the particularly active hurricane forecast stems from the transition from the El Nino weather pattern to La Nina this summer. 
“When we looked back at previous years that had similar shifts in that pattern — there’s 11 of them — that can kind of give us an idea of what we could see this year,” DaSilva said in mid-June. “So this year some of the areas that we’re really concerned about for hurricanes is South Florida, basically south of the Space Coast, and then the Carolinas from kind of northern South Carolina, up through [Cape] Hatteras, the Outer Banks there.”
While those parts of the coast are frequently in the path of hurricanes, “this year we’re just exceptionally more concerned about those areas based on kind of the general pattern and what the past has produced,” he said.
Fort Pulaski National Monument, a sea-level site in Georgia that preserves a pre-Civil War fortress, has become increasingly vulnerable to flooding from hurricanes, and the outlook portends more dire outcomes. Studies have shown that nearly 90 percent of the structures are at “high vulnerability” from sea-level rise and storm surges. Maybe the only salvation for those structures could be elevating them, according to a Park Service report. 
Jessica Howell-Edwards has reason to be concerned about this year’s hurricane season.
“For a barrier island like Cumberland, [the threats are] multifaceted,” said Howell-Edwards, executive director of Wild Cumberland, a nonprofit that strives to protect the national seashore’s wilderness, native species, and the ecology.
“There’s the worry about saltwater intrusion on aquifers and how that will impact a number of freshwater species that are reliant on the island for habitat,” she said, adding that as storm surges become more powerful and frequent the seashore’s roads and structures will face greater impacts.
“…A place like Cumberland, if you look really far into the future, eventually could be completely underwater,” said Howell-Edwards.
Climate change is impacting wildlife habitat all along the Eastern Seaboard, from the turtle nests at Cumberland Island to the Red knots and piping plovers, two threatened bird species that rely on national seashore beaches for nesting and recharging during their migration.
Sand bags can hold back the ocean for only so long/2022 NPS photo from Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Sarah Barmeyer, the National Parks Conservation Association’s deputy vice president for conservation, said the increase in extreme weather, along with human development, is reducing habitat wildlife depend on. 
“They’re getting displaced and having to move to other areas that are safer to nest,” she said. “However, also along the East Coast, there’s a huge amount of development. It’s hard to ignore the development that’s also in such a congested area. So, there are not many places to go.”
Vegetation also is suffering. In some parts of Everglades National Park, mangroves, used to growing in saltwater, are advancing inland into freshwater areas as rising sea levels and storm surges push saltwater further inland. Salt marshes also are being adversely impacted by rising seas, as well as by shoreline development.
Communities that rely on tourism, from surf casters, surfers, and kayaking to snorkeling and beachcombing, could see the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars, or more, combined, in revenues due to more frequent harmful algal blooms [HAB] that could be spawned by ocean waters warmed by climate change.
“The loss to tourism-related businesses due to the 2018 Florida red tide bloom was estimated to be $2.7 billion, which implies that HABs and their impact on tourism can be considered as a potential ‘billion-dollar’ disaster,” noted Dr. Sergio Alvarez, a natural resource economist at the Rosen College of Hospitality at the University of Central Florida. 
The myriad impacts from climate change to the National Park System threaten to alter the parks along the Eastern Seaboard in previously unimagined ways. In the coming months, the Traveler will illustrate the risks and highlight potential solutions.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
National Parks Traveler is a 501(c) (3) nonprofit media organization.
Privacy Policy
Terms of Use
2005-2022 National Parks Traveler
Contact us