This park faces threats—all made worse by climate change

In Rocky Mountain National Park, rising temperatures compound the destruction from invasive plants, bark beetles, and wildfires.

This story appears in the February 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

In Rocky Mountain National Park, 415 square miles of mountain terrain are protected—but not from effects of climate change. The average annual temperature in the high-elevation park increased 3.4˚F in the 20th century. That has worsened a trifecta of troubles—bark beetles, wildfires, and invasive plants such as cheatgrass—doing visible harm to the plant life covering three-fourths of the park.

Climate change

leads to…

More

cheatgrass

Increased

wildfires

Bark beetle

outbreaks

DOMINO EFFECT

Bark beetles, fires, and cheatgrass can play important ecological roles, but climate change exacerbates their effects on one another. For example, cheatgrass thrives when temperatures rise, adding kindling to wildfires that are

already more intense due to drier conditions, and fires can spread faster where bark beetles have killed trees.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN

N. P.

CO

UNITED STATES

N

INVADING GRASSES

Non-native cheatgrass, once limited to the park’s lowest elevations, is now spreading above 9,500 feet, moving more than 2,000 feet in elevation in just 10 years.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK

WILDER WILDFIRES

More acreage has burned here in the past eight years than in the previous century. The 2012 Fern Lake fire, caused by humans and fed by dry conditions, burned for months and over snow.

DESTRUCTIVE BEETLES

Dense stands of conifers are like a banquet for bark beetles. Mountain pine beetles infest 90 percent of the park’s pine forests, and spruce beetle populations are rising fast.

CLARE TRAINOR, NGM STAFF

SOURCES: COLORADO STATE FOREST SERVICE; USDA FOREST SERVICE; NATIONAL PARK SERVICE; JASON SIBOLD AND AMANDA WEST, COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY; GEOMAC, USGS

DOMINO EFFECT

Bark beetles, fires, and cheatgrass can play important ecological roles, but climate change exacerbates their effects on one another. For example, cheatgrass thrives when temperatures rise, adding kindling to wildfires that are already more intense due to drier conditions, and fires can spread faster where bark beetles have killed trees.

Climate change

leads to…

ROCKY MOUNTAIN

N. P.

More

cheatgrass

Increased

wildfires

Bark beetle

outbreaks

CO

UNITED STATES

SCALE VARIES IN THIS PERSPECTIVE. DISTANCE FROM ESTES PARK TO GRAND LAKE IS 18 MILES (29 KM).

N

Alpine

Visitor

Center

Big Meadows

fire (2013)

Grand Lake

8,369 ft

2,551 m

Fern Lake

fire (2012)

Cow Creek

fire (2010)

Longs Peak

14,259 ft

4,346 m

Ouzel fire (1978)

Rocky Mountain National Park Headquarters

Estes Park

7,522 ft

2,293 m

Projected suitable

cheatgrass habitat in 2050

Current suitable cheatgrass

(Bromus tectorum) habitat

Severe bark beetle damage, 2012–18

Wildfire over 50 acres since 1970

WILDER WILDFIRES

More acreage has burned here in the past eight years than in the previous century. The 2012

Fern Lake fire, caused by humans and fed by dry conditions, burned for months and over snow.

INVADING GRASSES

Non-native cheatgrass, once limited to the park’s lowest elevations, is now spreading above 9,500 feet, moving more than 2,000 feet in elevation in just 10 years.

DESTRUCTIVE BEETLES

Dense stands of conifers are like a banquet for bark beetles. Mountain pine beetles infest 90 percent of the park’s pine forests, and spruce beetle populations are rising fast.

CLARE TRAINOR, NGM STAFF

SOURCES: COLORADO STATE FOREST SERVICE; USDA FOREST SERVICE; NATIONAL PARK SERVICE; JASON SIBOLD AND AMANDA WEST, COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY; GEOMAC, USGS