Global warming could boost national park visits

When warmer weather hits, people often head to national parks for a much-needed retreat into nature. But what will happen to these trips as the planet heats up? Will parks be flooded with more visitors, or will people retreat to air-conditioned resorts instead?

The answer isn’t just important for vacation planning. The US national park system is big business: in 2013, about 273 million people visited these protected areas and generated $14.6 billion of local spending. More than 238,000 jobs depend partly on national park tourism.

To investigate, a team studied 340 protected areas in the United States, Guam, and the Caribbean. The sites included wilderness parks as well as monuments, battlefields, and memorials. The researchers examined the number of recreational visits per month and the temperature at each site from 1979-2013, then ran computer models to predict how visits might change in 2041-2060 under two climate change scenarios.

The historical data suggested that visits tend to rise with warmer weather, but then drop off when the mercury goes above about 77 degrees Fahrenheit, the study authors report in PLOS ONE. At 83 percent of the parks, tourism was strongly linked to temperature. Some sites didn’t follow this pattern: for example, the weather at Pu`uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park in Hawaii is fairly mild throughout the year and didn’t appear to affect visits.

Figure 1

The relationship between temperature and monthly park visits (as a proportion of annual visits) from 1979-2013.

In general, park managers can expect tourism to increase with global warming. The team predicts that visits will rise by 5-19 percent and 13-31 percent during the high and low seasons, respectively. During the shoulder seasons, a couple months before and after high season, the estimated increase is 9-24 percent. Visits could dip during the hottest months at some parks, but the overall impact on the park system is small, the authors say.

Figure 2

The black lines show historical visits from 1979-2013. The red and yellow lines show projected visits under two climate change scenarios from 2041-2060.

As parks become more popular, managers may need to hire more staff to deal with possible overcrowding. And if visits decline at the most sweltering sites, parks may need to offer more drinking water and air-conditioned buildings to keep their numbers up. Roberta Kwok | 18 June 2015

Source: Fisichelli, N.A. et al. 2015. Protected area tourism in a changing climate: Will visitation at US national parks warm up or overheat? PLOS ONE doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0128226.

First image © Phillip Rubino | Shutterstock

Second and third images: Fisichelli NA, Schuurman GW, Monahan WB, Ziesler PS (2015) Protected Area Tourism in a Changing Climate: Will Visitation at US National Parks Warm Up or Overheat? PLoS ONE 10(6): e0128226. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0128226

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