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Parks, Wildlife Areas Seen Facing Peril

Environment: Report says global warming is impacting glaciers, California seashore. Study may spur calls for curbs in greenhouse gas emissions.

June 25, 1997|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — In a largely overlooked but potentially alarming development in the debate over global warming, a study released Tuesday by a well-respected international environmental group warns that increasing temperatures are threatening the United States' national parks and wildlife areas.

From the heights of the American glaciers to the California seashore, from the Everglades to the Arctic, the changing climate is bringing noticeable shifts in forest and wildflower meadows, and in sea and shorebird numbers, according to the report by the World Wildlife Fund.

The study adds a new, closer-to-home element to the pressure being put on the Clinton administration to restrict U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases. Other industrialized nations attending a global environmental summit here already are pushing Washington to adopt a more stringent position; many--but not all--scientists blame global warming on growing emissions of greenhouse gases.

"The effects of global warming are not merely a future impact in faraway places," the report says. "The first signs of climate change have been detected and can already be seen in our own backyards. Alarmingly, many of North America's most cherished natural areas, the national parks, are clearly feeling the effects of global warming," it says.

The report drew a skeptical response from Gail MacDonald, director of the Global Climate Coalition, an industry-affiliated group that questions the existence of global warming. "We feel the science is still very much in doubt," she said.

Among the impacts reported--or predicted--in the study were these:

Forests are beginning to invade the famed floral-carpeted Alpine meadows of Glacier National Park in Montana, where the retreat of the glacier itself already has been documented. Melting permafrost beneath the surface of national lands in the Alaskan Arctic could become sinkholes, unable to support their meager surface vegetation. And, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park--the nation's most-visited park with about 9 million guests a year--a distinct strain of brook trout could become extinct as the cool water along the Tennessee-North Carolina border on which it depends warms ever so slightly.

In California, global warming is having an impact all along the coast, the report says. "Some of the best evidence of biological changes connected with long-term global warming trends has been gathered from the coastal zone and seas off California," it says.

"Warming of the surface layer of the ocean by as much as 1 1/2 degrees centigrade in some places since 1951 has led to declines of 80% in zooplankton in the California Current," the report says.

Zooplankton are tiny organisms that support such small sea creatures as squid, rockfish and sardines. They, in turn, support a wide range of seabirds along the current, a globally important warm-water zone that flows through the Pacific along the West Coast.

The population of the sooty shearwater, an albatross-like seabird, has declined 90% since 1987, according to zoologist Richard Veit of Staten Island College in New York. The Channel Islands National Park and the Point Reyes National Seashore, north of San Francisco, are protected areas for such seabirds.

Given a summary of the study, Fred Singer, director of the Science and Environment Policy Project, a think tank devoted to examining scientific data linked to climate change, commented on its goals rather than the science behind it.

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The report is an attempt to "influence public opinion and convince the public global warming is here, that it's bad, that we, the American consumers, are responsible for it and we should do something about it," said Singer, a professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Virginia.

As Singer's comments demonstrate, some members of the scientific community continue to question the validity of studies that many of their colleagues believe provide evidence that global temperatures are slowly moving upward, stemming from the release of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. Acting much as the glass of a greenhouse, the gas is believed to trap the heat given off by the earth.

As for the temperature of the California Current, Singer said, "Sometimes the current warms, sometimes the current cools. It has been fluctuating for millennia."

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