Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) protects 415 square miles of spectacular mountain environments in northern Colorado. It is home to a diversity of ecosystems – alpine, subalpine, and montane – that are each uniquely adapted to the climate zone of their elevation. This is why, as I learned during a recent visit, climate change is a serious issue for the park.
According to the National Park Service, the average annual temperature in RMNP has increased 3.4°F over the past century. A report from a weather station inside the park (Grand Lake), shows that the number of frost-free days has increased from an average of 65 in the mid-20th century to an average of 100 in this past decade.
This warming trend, says the NPS, has caused a number of environmental changes in RMNP. The winter snowpack is melting approximately 2 to 3 weeks earlier, resulting in less water being available for people, plants, and animals during the summer. There has been an explosive increase in the number of mountain pine beetles surviving the now warmer winter months, allowing them to devour more trees. The phenology, or the timing of natural events, can also be thrown out of sync when warm spring weather arrives earlier than normal. Wildflowers that bloom before the arrival of butterflies, for example, can leave the insects with a reduced food source. This puts a kink in how the larger food chain fits together.
In the park’s alpine tundra region, the American Pika is at particular risk. According to scientists, this small furry relative of the rabbit can only live at high elevations in cool, rocky environments. They say it cannot survive in temperatures above 75°F for more than a few hours. While other species adapted to lower elevations can move upslope as average temperatures rise, the pika has nowhere to go.
Another impact of climate change is the spreading of non-native plant species that can thrive in the now warmer environment of RMNP. While Cheatgrass, a native of Eurasia, is found throughout the western US, it used to be limited to lower elevations. Now, it is found as high as 9,500 feet in parts of RMNP. In addition to crowding out native plants and changing the look of the landscape, this invasive species is highly flammable. Its presence increases the danger of wildfires – something the West certainly does not need.
While these are just a few examples of the observed and expected impacts climate change is and will have on RMNP, scientists are continuing to research how additional increases in temperature will affect this national treasure.