Exposure of U.S. National Parks to Land Use and Climate Change 1900-2100

Andrew J. Hansen, Nathan Piekielek, Cory Davis, Jessica Haas, David M. Theobald, John E. Gross, William B. Monahan, Tom Olliff, Steven W. Running
Posted on: 7/18/2022 - Updated on: 7/07/2023

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Many protected areas may not be adequately safeguarding biodiversity from human activities on surrounding lands and global change. The magnitude of such change agents and the sensitivity of ecosystems to these agents vary among protected areas. Thus, there is a need to assess vulnerability across networks of protected areas to determine those most at risk and to lay the basis for developing effective adaptation strategies.

We conducted an assessment of exposure of U.S. National Parks to climate and land use change and consequences for vegetation communities. We first defined park protected-area centered ecosystems (PACEs) based on ecological principles. We then drew on existing land use, invasive species, climate, and biome data sets and models to quantify exposure of PACEs from 1900 through 2100. Most PACEs experienced substantial change over the 20th century (>740% average increase in housing density since 1940, 13% of vascular plants are presently nonnative, temperature increase of 1°C/100 yr since 1895 in 80% of PACEs), and projections suggest that many of these trends will continue at similar or increasingly greater rates (255% increase in housing density by 2100, temperature increase of 2.5°-4.5°C/100 yr, 30% of PACE areas may lose their current biomes by 2030).

In the coming century, housing densities are projected to increase in PACEs at about 82% of the rate of since 1940. The rate of climate warming in the coming century is projected to be 2.5-5.8 times higher than that measured in the past century. Underlying these averages, exposure of individual park PACEs to change agents differ in important ways. For example, parks such as Great Smoky Mountains exhibit high land use and low climate exposure, others such as Great Sand Dunes exhibit low land use and high climate exposure, and a few such as Point Reyes exhibit high exposure on both axes. The cumulative and synergistic effects of such changes in land use, invasives, and climate are expected to dramatically impact ecosystem function and biodiversity in national parks.

These results are foundational to developing effective adaptation strategies and suggest policies to better safeguard parks under broad-scale environmental change.


Hansen, A.J., Piekielek, N., Davis, C. Haas, J., Theobald, D.M., Gross, J.E., Monahan, W.B., Olliff, T., Running, S.W. (2014). Exposure of U.S. National Parks to land use and climate change 1900-2100. Ecological Applications, 24(3): 484-502.

From the project: Vulnerability Assessment of Ecological Systems and Species to Climate and Land Use Change within the North Central Climate Science domain and Partner USDOI Landscape Conservation Cooperatives.

Affiliated Organizations

Research has been part of the Forest Service mission since the agency’s inception in 1905. The Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS) is an integral component of USDA Forest Service Research and Development (R&D). 

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