Climate Change Fellowships

The goals of the fellowship program are to support new and innovative research on climate change impacts to protected areas and to increase the use of scientific knowledge toward resource policy and management decisions in parks.

Climate Change Fellowship Program
Climate Change Fellowship Program
NPS photo

This fellowship allows the best and brightest upcoming climate change researchers a chance to develop their skills on NPS lands. These fellows come from colleges and universities all across the nation, truly making this a national program. The 2012 fellowship awards supported research in roughly 19 different parks conducted by 14 scholars.

  • Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve – Soil in the arctic tundra holds a great deal of dead plant material that releases CO2 into the atmosphere as microbes (bugs) in the soil break it down. How quickly that happens depends in part on how much the soil warms in a changing climate and on the broader food web of which the microbes are a part. This study will use experiments to determine how wolf spiders and temperature together ultimately affect the conversion of soil organic matter into CO2.
  • Glacier, Grand Teton & Yellowstone National Parks – Climate models for the western United States predict increases in wildfire frequency and intensity which is likely to result in rapid and widespread changes in vegetation patterns and wildlife habitat. This study will examine how the severity of wildfires has changed over the past 26 years in forested national parks and surrounding wilderness areas of the northern Rockies in order to inform park managers who seek to understand how different forest habitats will respond to ongoing climate change.
  • Isle Royale National Park – As anyone who has dived down toward the bottom of a lake in the summertime knows, the water temperature can be quite pleasant in the upper layers but then suddenly get cold below a particular depth. These distinct thermal layers are due to seasonal weather patterns that create important habitat for the organisms that live in the lake. Algae collected from the bottom of Lake Siskwit indicate the thickness of the upper warm layer has more than doubled (from about 15 to 36 feet) over the 20th century. It is not known, however, if such a change is within the natural range, how the change may affect the base of the food web, or whether the change has occurred in other lakes.
  • Kalaupapa National Historical Park – Hard corals create reefs that support the most biologically diverse communities in the world's oceans. Essential to the growth and survival of those corals is the presence, inside the coral animal's tissue, of symbiotic algae. As the algae undergo photosynthesis, they produce sugars the corals use to grow. When the surrounding water gets too warm, the corals evict their symbiotic algae, a process called coral bleaching. Global climate change is warming the surface waters of tropical oceans, and bleaching events are becoming more common and long-lasting. This study will compare the temperature sensitivity and the physiology of the coral-algae partnership in two coral species from Hawaii.
  • Lassen Volcanic National Park – The sediments that accumulate at the bottom of lakes provide excellent long-term records of past climate change and the effects those changes have on biological communities. Those sediments contain the skeletons of diatoms—microscopic single-celled algae—whose abundance and species composition depends on temperature, nutrient levels, pH, and other variables of the lake environment. This study will sample sediments from alpine lakes at the boundary of Sierra Nevada and Cascades ecosystems, and compare the changing history of diatom communities to the diatoms that are present in the water today. The comparisons will help reveal how these important aquatic systems respond to warming, local land use changes, increased nutrient deposition, and other environmental changes.
  • Mount Rainier National Park – Subalpine meadows filled with wildflowers are among the most-loved attributes of Mount Rainier National Park. They are threatened, however, because trees from lower-elevation forests are encroaching on them. Why that is happening is not clear, though it may be due to some combination of past climate change, current climate change, suppression of natural forest fires, or absence of human-caused fires. This study will use sediment cores taken from subalpine lakes to reconstruct long-term history of vegetation and fire in these areas of the park. These histories will be combined with climate records in order to determine what role climate has played in the encroachment of forests into subalpine meadow habitats and whether it is likely to play a role in the future.
  • National Park of American Samoa – Some coral species, populations, and even individuals are more resistant to heat stress than others. Understanding how and why sensitivity to temperature is so variable is essential for conserving these critically important organisms. This project will compare the temperature sensitivity and coral bleaching responses of two colonies of Acropora hyacinthus that live in adjacent pools in American Samoa, one with high and variable temperatures, the other with more stable temperatures. Short and long-term exposure to different temperatures will reveal how readily the corals can adjust to heat shock, and molecular genetic techniques will reveal which genes confer temperature tolerance.
  • National Park of American Samoa – Atmospheric carbon dioxide not only increases the average temperature of the planet, it also increases the acidity of the ocean. The ability of corals and other marine organisms to build hard skeletons will be hampered as ocean water becomes more acidic. Thus, it is important to understand how temperature and acidity (pH) together affect coral growth and to understand how corals adjust over the short and long term to changes in their environment. This study will compare, through observation and experiment, the growth and environmental sensitivity of a coral species that naturally experience different combinations of temperature and pH on the same reef in American Samoa.
  • Several Hawaiian National Parks – Anchialine pools are small bodies of brackish water along the coast connected to the ocean only through underground passages. Four national parks on the Big Island of Hawaii protect these unique habitats, the endemic species they harbor, and the values they have to indigenous Hawaiian culture. The pools will be severely affected by rising sea level, but specific impacts are difficult to predict and manage because basic information is lacking. This study will map existing pools, including the distribution of key native and invasive species, identify possible future pools at higher elevation, and assess habitat condition. As a result, park managers will be better able to plan on how to adapt to rising sea level.
  • Shenandoah National Park – Amphibian species are suffering from some of the highest extinction rates in the world. One cause of population decline is an infectious fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). In recent years some amphibians have been found with naturally-occurring bacteria on their skin that protects them from Bd infection. This study will identify the bacteria that live on the skin of two salamander species in the park and examine how the abundance of those bacteria and of the Bd fungus differ between low elevation (warm) and high elevation (cool) habitats. The results will suggest how the threat of infectious disease may change under future climates. The study will also identify particular anti-Bd bacteria that could be intentionally used to fight future Bd epidemics and thereby help prevent salamander extinction.
  • Saint Croix National Scenic River – Native brook trout in the St. Croix River tributaries are, as in many places in North America, a dwindling native species. Competition and predation by introduced brown trout, increasing temperatures, and other factors are taking their toll. Protecting and restoring brook trout populations in this watershed requires knowing where the right stream temperatures exist and where the healthy populations are. In this project, temperature recordings and fish surveys will help park managers understand which stream reaches are the most important to protect or restore now and in the future in order to ensure that native trout remain part of this river ecosystem.
  • Sequoia, Kings Canyon & Yosemite National Parks – Within the Sierra Nevada Mountains are many plant species whose southern-most populations occur in places where cold air consistently pools in mountain valleys. Because they are cool, these spots represent potential refuges for rare plant species as climate warming accelerates. Many of these locations are also places where natural forest fires were suppressed for decades and are now filled with abundant fuel. This study will map the cold refuges, determine how their fire ecology compares to that of adjacent forest areas, and infer how vulnerable the refuges and plants they host are to future fires. As a result, park managers will have a framework for considering the distinct ecology of these unique refuges as they develop strategies for managing fire under a changing climate.
  • Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve – Phenology is the timing of life events like flowering and migration, and long-term change in phenology is a good indicator of how species and communities are affected by changes in the climate. To gain enough data over a large area and time period relevant to climate change, researchers often make use of historical datasets like old photographs and journals, rely on the traditional ecological knowledge of local residents, and engage non-scientists to help collect data near their homes. This project will collect phenological observations made by residents in and around Wrangell-St. Elias since before the park was founded in 1980. Such citizen-generated observations will complement the contemporary data collected by resource managers and scientists and demonstrate how ethnographic research can be used to answer natural resource management questions.
  • Yosemite National Park – The American pika is a small rabbit-like mammal that lives on high elevation rock fields. In the Rocky Mountains, increasing temperatures associated with climate change has made many rock fields unsuitable for pikas, and in some places pikas have become locally extinct as their required temperature ranges move upslope. Whether that is happening as well in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is not clear. This study will inventory pika populations in the Sierra Nevada and compare their distributions to historic records and to patterns observed in the Great Basin and Rocky Mountains.

Tags: George Melendez Wright Climate Change Internship and Fellowship Program