Science in our National Parks: 5 places where, and why, scientists work

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a park ranger? Few people realize that the National Park Service is responsible for more than just picking up trash and collecting fees. To illustrate this point, I decided to use my blog posts to illustrate the many ways that park service scientists are applying scientific knowledge to protect, preserve, and understand the public’s natural and cultural resources.


Glacier National Park

Glacier NP is located in 1,500 square-miles of mountains, forests and pristine lakes near Montana’s border with Canada. One of Glacier’s many features is solitude, and with over 700 miles of isolated trails, there’s no shortage of it. Solitude, however, is a relative term. Glacier’s ecosystems are a bio-diverse memory of what the American West looked like before human settlement. Glacier National Park is home to one of the largest remaining grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 states.  Despite harsh winters and extreme altitudes, life exists both above and beneath the park’s characteristic tree-lines: the alpine edge of the forest biome where trees cannot pioneer but microorganisms and other forms of life thrive. For scientists, Glacier NP’s isolation results in a fresh environment that is almost as pure and natural as one can expect in the modern world.  However, this apparent protection from the direct effects of human civilization gives way to the diffuse threat of climate change.

Climate change is a major threat to Glacier NP. The park’s characteristic glaciers are melting at an astonishing rate, and ecosystems are shifting to adapt as a result. Management strategies to protect existing macro and micro-ecology entails understanding the parks unique landscape. Park rangers often partner with scientists from the United States Geological Survey to study Glacier’s mineral resources, archaeology, geology and ecology. Scientists also contribute to public education in order to address the diffuse threat of climate change. The Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center is one of nearly 20 nationwide facilities contributing to scientific literacy and communication of natural resource management in national parks. Learn more here about the Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center.

Since 1910, Glacier National Park has lost nearly 67% of its glaciers. Scientists who work with the National Park Service focus on many topics, including geography, ice patch archaeology and paleoecology. Ice patch archaeology and paleoecology are particularly important given anthropogenic threats to the park’s iconic landscape ushered forward by human-induced climate change. Glacier’s highland climate may appear to be made up of barren glaciers and moraines and isolated alpine peaks, but these almost invisible ecosystems are home to many forms of biotic and abiotic resources. As glaciers disappear and the highland climate shifts to adapt, the park may lose biodiversity. Abiotic resources such as glaciers affect animals disproportionately, and amphibians, birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, insects and other forms of biota will respond differently.  To learn more about Glacier National Park’s cultural and natural resources, and the scientific studies being carried out there, visit this link.


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