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What Happens If Glaciers Vanish From Glacier National Park?

That’s just one of the questions facing America’s national parks, and conservationists who would protect them from man-made and natural threats.

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This story appears in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

What happens if there are no more glaciers in Glacier National Park?

In 2016 we have focused in the magazine and digital platforms on parks in the United States and worldwide. We did so to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service—and because parks are a fascinating lens through which to explore changes and challenges in our planet’s environment, wildlife, and climate.

Though “protected,” parks clearly are not immune from the man-made and natural forces that are altering their landscapes and the habitats of the animals that live within their borders.

Take glaciers. In 1850 there were about 150 massive ones in what is now Glacier National Park, near the Canadian border in Montana. Today just 25 remain, and scientists believe even the largest of them will disappear by 2030.

In Sequoia National Park in California, home to towering trees that can live 3,000 years, climate change is boosting temperatures, but with uncertain results. “We don’t know which scenario will play out,” says Sequoia Superintendent Woody Smeck in this issue. Will it mean more or less rain? Will change be abrupt or gradual?

This is why, a century after the Park Service was founded, it’s looking anew at its role in conserving land- and seascapes by managing parks not as static terrain but as places of transformation.

That has meant moving an iconic lighthouse inland at North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras National Seashore. It may mean planting sequoia seedlings above the current range, in the cooler, higher parts of Sequoia National Park. And at Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland, it means teaching students about sea rise the way chief of education Liz Davis does: by throwing a bucket of water on a sand model of the park.

When people ask her about the future of parks, Davis gives an answer that is hopeful—and that may prove true only if we all do our part.

“People ask, ‘Will my kids and grandkids be able to enjoy it?’” Davis says. “Yes, they will. They might not enjoy it in the same way, and they might not get here the same way. But they will still be able to enjoy it.”



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