By Lizzie Wasilewska

Alpine flowers on the slopes of Mount Rainier.
Alpine flowers on the slopes of Mount Rainier. Credit: Alan Vernon

On its website, the National Park Service writes that “our national parks are a testament to the reality of climate change.” The National Parks Conservation Association reinforces that message: according to their website, “the gradual, accelerated warming of our planet will have disastrous consequences for America’s national parks.” One national park that demonstrates the transformative and potentially devastating effects of climate change is Mount Rainier.

Mount Rainier National Park in Washington was established in 1899, making it the fifth-oldest national park. The mountain itself contains an active volcano and currently has the most glaciated peak in the contiguous U.S. In addition to its glaciers, the region includes vast fields of wildflowers, 1,000-year-old trees and a variety of wildlife. The mountain’s lower slopes are filled with ancient forests, which comprise the Mount Rainier Forest Reserve.

As Mount Rainier’s glaciers retreat, these ancient forests are gaining ground in some areas: At lower elevations, trees are invading regions that were traditionally occupied by meadows. In other regions, the forests have become more fragile. Rain in the region falls earlier in the year than it did throughout the 20th century and this premature rain has caused several forest-damaging floods. The region has also become more vulnerable to avulsions — sudden changes in course of rivers or creeks. This has caused erosion and structural damage.

The floods and erosion in Mount Rainier National Park are exacerbated by the lack of supportive vegetation in key areas. Sometimes, humans can help to resolve this issue. American Forests has worked to plant trees throughout the world; for example, we are currently reforesting parts of the Michoacán preserve in Mexico, in order to build up its resilience and improve its biodiversity. Erosion caused by avulsions, one of many potential consequences of climate change, can and does undermine ecosystems like Mount Rainier, but we can help prevent it.