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Climate destruction will hit U.S. national parks the hardest

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The sunset above Voyageurs National Park
The sun sets over Voyageurs National Park.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Average temperatures in national parks will increase twice as quickly as the rest of the nation, exposing them to the worst effects of human-caused climate change, according to new research

National parks will see less annual rainfall than other parts of the country and certain parks could warm by 16 degrees within the next 80 years, according to the analysis released Monday by University of California-Berkeley and University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists.

"At this point, it is likely that the glaciers in Glacier National Park will ultimately disappear, and what is Glacier National Park if it doesn't have glaciers anymore?" John Williams, a Madison geography professor, said in a news release. 

The researchers say their analysis was the first quantitative look at how much climate change is affecting all 417 parks in the U.S. National Park System.

National parks are concentrated in the west and southwest, especially the big ones like Yosemite or Glacier. But there are many in the Upper Midwest.

Minnesota's most prominent national park is Voyageurs National Park near the Canadian border. It also has Grand Portage National Monument, the Mississippi National River and Recreation AreaPipestone National Monument and the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, which is shared with Wisconsin. 

Quartzite cliffs
Quartzite cliffs stand along the Circle Trail in Pipestone National Monument.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

And there's the North Country National Scenic Trail running through seven states including Minnesota. 

Isle Royale National Park sits 18 miles off Minnesota's Lake Superior shoreline but is within Michigan's borders. The Dakotas are home to three major national parks: Theodore Roosevelt, Wind Cave and Badlands. 

National parks' unique location and ecosystems make them more vulnerable to climate change like arid deserts or high mountains.

"National parks conserve the most spectacular landscapes in the country and they happen to be located in extreme environments up in the Arctic, in high elevations in mountains and in the arid desert Southwest," Patrick Gonzalez, a Berkeley professor on the study, told MPR News. 

Large-scale efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, such as sticking to the Paris climate accords, would help stave off the most extreme scenarios. However, the researchers note national parks will still likely experience more than 3 degree temperature increases even with major emissions reductions. 

Park rangers are already using this new data to inform their work, Gonzalez said. The research is informing how parks adapt to climate change by conserving resources and mitigating the changes by reducing carbon pollution. 

This article is based off an interview by MPR News chief meteorologist Paul Huttner for Climate Cast. Listen to past episodes of the show here.