Part 5: North Cascades National Park

North Cascades National Park is located near Seattle, Washington, alongside the state’s border with Canada. The North Cascades seems to offer a wide range of accessibility to people of all interests and capabilities. For example, within the North Cascades one could go on a canoe trip while someone else is attempting to summit the nearly 10,000 ft. Mt. Shucksan, while another person may be studying the ecology of its gently sloped bottomland forest. Like many other parks that are situated in higher latitudes and accustomed to colder climates, the North Cascades offer the opportunity for researchers to see the direct and indirect effects of climate change. Major topics for scientific investigation include ecosystem and ecotone studies, such as habitat and species analysis in response to altered biomes. According to NPS research, invasive plants are a major problem in the park. NPS researchers are also responsible for a glacier monitoring program that studies variations and trends in the ice and its relation to climate change.


The mission of the park’s researchers is especially important since it is within driving distance of Seattle and Toronto, meaning there is extreme pressure to protect and preserve the park for future generations. Many of the problems that the North Cascades face are commonplace across the country. Like the Great Smoky Mountains, the North Cascades are frequently visited. The park seems to be suffering from such an overabundance of appreciation, because tourism is degrading the parks resources and habitats. The park’s trees are suffering heavily from an invasive species. In all corners of the park, tree species such as the North Cascades’ whitebark pine suffer from massive die offs and invasive beetles. The beetles are parasites that bore into the flesh of the tree, enabling other opportunistic diseases to proliferate and damage its structure. The Pine Beetle has become and endemic problem across the United States. Scientists in the North Cascades are studying whether warmer temperatures ushered in by climate change enable the beetle to have longer, more damaging seasons on the pines growth. To learn more about North Cascades National Park, click here.




Part 4 of 5: Katmai National Park

Looking at a map of Alaska, you will notice a long peninsula extending in a south-westerly direction into the north Pacific. Alaska’s “arm”, also known as the Katmai Peninsula, mirrors the iconic basis of most people’s mental picture of Alaska: tall and majestic snow-covered peaks adjacent to a deep-blue field of ocean speckled with sea ice.  This portion of Alaska is the product of powerful geologic processes. Katmai National Park & Preserve is located atop a highly volcanic zone known as the Pacific Ring of Fire. The Pacific Ring of Fire is a highly active subductive zone that is the result of ongoing geologic activity in the Pacific Ocean, which literally gives rise (altitude) to the distinct geography of the southern Alaskan-Pacific Coastline.

View from Dumpling Mountain Trail, Katmai National Park

In Katmai National Park & Preserve, volcanologists, geologists, and ecologists in addition to numerous other academic fields, study the effects of the 1913 Novarupta-Katmai eruption on natural and cultural resources. The eruption created a distinct feature called the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes when volcanic ash and magma were channeled by the Ukak River valley. The valley earned its namesake from pockets of moisture trapped under the surface which led to supercharged vents of steam escaping from the surface for decades to come.  The pyroclastic flow from the eruption literally vaporized and sublimated almost everything in its path. To date, the landscape is still considered to be volcanically active. Research in Katmai National Park contributes to the growing science of volcanology, which is still a hotly debated subject.

View from Brooks Camp, Katmai National Park

The National Park Service engages in many types of research in addition to geology and volcanology. Biologists working with the park service study how the effects of marine and aquatic pollution work their way up the food chain and cause deleterious effects in brown bears and other species that subsist off of coastal fisheries. NPS researchers in Katmai NP are also studying topics such as the Sea Star Wasting Disease, coastal ecology and oceanography, as well as social sciences and archaeology. Katmai National Park and Preserve is a fascinating site of cultural heritage and researchers often study interactions between ancient human settlements and the landscape. To learn more about Katmai National Park and Preserve, click here.


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

Part 3 of 5: Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park is located on a small rugged island in the Gulf of Maine, and is only a few nautical miles away from Nova Scotia, Canada. Although the park occupies only a small portion of Mt. Desert Island, extreme tides in the Atlantic Ocean mean that the park grows and retracts with high and low tide, revealing tide pools and shallows at more than 10 ft. The parks world renowned coastal habitat is easily accessible and close to major metropolitan areas such as Bangor, ME.  The park’s nickname, The First Eastern National Park, suggests its historical and cultural significance. Acadia National Park was designated as a  national park in the early 20th century, but its importance stretches past the colonization of North America to nearly 5,000 years ago, when Native American populations subsisted off the coast’s abundant natural resources and fisheries. Now, Maine’s coast is home to the majority of its population, endangering the timeless resources and history of the park.  Acadia National Park is also home to scientific studies that hope to understand the effects from human settlements within its proximity.


Anthropogenic effects from settlement and development of lands often spill over into the park. Pollution in the Bay of Fundy and in the Gulf of Maine introduces mercury and other heavy metals into the food chain. Depleted and over utilized fisheries unbalance marine food webs and endanger economies. Light pollution alters the life cycles of nocturnal and light-sensitive species. One major ongoing study hopes to understand how anthropogenic light pollution affects the parks habitats and ecology, including that of the Peregrine falcon, and other small mammals such field mice, which are an important food source for the falcon.


Light pollution is a major problem within and outside of the park. Worldwide, night skies are changing while encroached habitats are increasingly marginalized. I personally believe that this environmental problem is often overlooked and underestimated, perhaps because humans have become so accustomed to lights at night. Light pollution does not seem to be treated as a major problem because its effects are largely unmeasured. It makes sense that light pollution in coastal areas would interfere with marine mammals and other species. Darkness is an important factor in nocturnal animal’s life cycles. To learn more about the park, and light pollution, follow this link.


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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

It’s ironic that the Great Smoky Mountains are a place of great mystery. With over 8 million visitors annually it’s the most visited national park. It’s free to enter, close to major metropolitan areas such as Knoxville, TN and Asheville, NC, and has several highways that traverse it. Dolly Parton even built a theme park right next door.  Yet most of the park remains undiscovered, and even the most seasoned visitors know that its 700 square miles is a stronghold for diverse and ancient habitats. The park is one of the last remaining memories of what the east coast was like before colonization and industrialization. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a holdout in one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges, even though it too was heavily deforested by the lumber industry and settled by pioneers. The Appalachian mountains were once comparable to the size and grandeur of India’s Himalayan Mountains. Though the ceaseless influence of time and human development has changed the park’s nature, approximately 30,000 to 80,000 living in the Smokies remain undiscovered. With only a tenth of the species having been discovered, this well-known park is still something of a mystery to most people.


Many scientists who work in the Great Smoky Mountains focus on the All Taxa Biological Inventory, which is designed to record all the species in the park in a short time period. As one of the world’s most biodiverse places, the Smokies necessarily has the most to lose. Cataloging species is an important aspect of the park’s natural resources management directive. Other scientists address the park’s problematic invasive species.  Native flora, such as hemlock trees, are threatened by invasive insects like the wooly adelgid. Fungal diseases such as White Nose Syndrome in bats have resulted in indefinite closure to caves within the park. Environmental factors such as acid rain and ozone pollution also pose major problems to biodiversity by changing the nature of ancient habitats. Ecologists, biologists and many other professions must work around the clock to protect and preserve the park.

As the most visited park in America, the Smokies are also important for contributing to scientific literacy and learning. I remember first-hand visiting the Tremont Institute when I was in middle school to learn about aquatic habitats and how salamanders are affected by acidic rain and human pollution in natural streams. In retrospect, the outreach performed by scientists at the Tremont Institute and the Appalachian Highlands Science and Learning Center contributed to my academic path towards environmental science as a graduate student. As a frequent visitor to the park, and native of Knoxville, TN, I am very grateful for the Smoky Mountains and the scientists who work there. To learn more about the park, visit this link.

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.

How Interdisciplinary Teamwork Might Solve the Historic California Drought

What do strawberries, peaches, raspberries, pistachios and almonds all have in common? If you’ve enjoyed one of these snacks in the past year, chances are it came from one of California’s many farms. California grows an overwhelming majority of domestically produced fruit. If you love healthy snack food, you should be worried about the historic California drought, which is arguably the worst drought of the 21st century.

California’s extreme drought threatens more than just our supply of healthy snack food. The state is home to nearly 40 million people, making it the most populous in the union, and it is filled with ecologically diverse and unique landscapes such as Yosemite National Park. Without water, life itself is endangered.

Environmental problems on the scale and complexity of the California drought are not easily solved. Especially poignant is the problem of balancing societal and human needs with those of the natural environment. To find out more about how researchers are attempting to solve problems brought on by drought, I interviewed Dr. Margaret Reams, professor of Environmental Sciences at Louisiana State University.

Being a professor at a public research university can be quite hectic. In addition to her family ties, Dr. Reams balances instructing and advising graduate students with researching and publishing scientific papers. One of her many current projects sheds light on varying environmental and social contexts in which people take action to address drought.

“We can’t solve the crisis in California without exploring the role of human agency… It’s a key element in trying to improve environmental conditions and devise better environmental policies.” – Dr. Margaret Reams

“We have to think of the impacts of the decisions that we make collectively and individually.” – Dr. Margaret Reams

The USGS (U.S. Geological Survey) funded project seeks to understand the conditions under which people take action to mitigate the damaging effects of drought. Putting preparedness and mitigation efforts in context of someone’s past experience and awareness of drought, age, income, location and employment will hopefully inform planners to understand how prepared a community is to face drought.

One would expect that people residing in primarily agricultural areas are more invested in drought mitigation and preparedness than perhaps a typical urbanite. However, this may not be the case. Drought on the scale and prominence of the historic California drought is not typical, and it often goes unnoticed. Either way, Dr. Reams believes that the project will enable a better understanding of the human dimensions of climatology and natural systems processes (i.e. how humans impact and possibly exacerbate drought).

The multidisciplinary project involves experts in geography, environmental sciences and political sciences. GIS expert Dr. Nina Lam and climatologist Dr. Robert Rohli contribute to the project by studying areas in the US that are characterized by historic and recent drought.

Addressing complex environmental issues such as drought often requires interdisciplinary teamwork. Together, according to Reams, the team hopes to “gain insight that is generalizable to other places and times.”

“Understanding the conditions under which people take action to mitigate damaging effects of drought and conserve water is key.” – Dr. Margaret Reams

In addition to qualitative research methods such as content analysis, and reviewing public documents, the team utilizes research methods that underscore the relationship between technology and drought planning. Remote sensing, GIS, and drought monitors such as the Palmer Drought Severity Index, the Crop Moisture Index, and the US Drought Monitor are being used to assess human response to drought conditions.

Current drought conditions in the United States

Current drought conditions in the United States

Dr. Reams’ portion of the project is running a statistical analysis of a randomized household survey within a predefined region in the South-Central portion of the United States. Facilitated by LSU’s public policy center, this portion of the project undertakes a multiple regression statistical analysis of about 500 randomized residents in drought prone areas.

By analyzing this data, the research team hopes to understand natural and human processes that are generalizable to the drought in California. If the results demonstrate applicable, Dr. Reams hopes to expand the two papers the group is planning to write from this project, particularly in California. Though it is too early to say, further research may involve the kind of policy tools that Californians are using, and their behavior in face of extreme drought in conditions.


Sean Williams is a graduate assistant working with Dr. Reams. He can be contacted for further information at Listen to the full interview here.