Hot Springs has long been a place where humans and nature connect. Now, in the face of climate change, that connection is more important than ever. Climate change affects everything around us and can have real and devastating impacts on human and nonhuman ecosystems. The impacts of climate change can affect the way we interact in the future with each other, with the thermal springs, and with nature.
As we face a world shaped by the climate crisis, we must work in community to reimagine the future. We can learn from nature, from each other, and from our history. People have changed the world before. Now, it’s time to do it again.
What's happening in Arkansas?
Climate change is already happening, in Arkansas and around the world. We know a lot about how the climate here has already changed, and we can use scientists’ data to make predictions about what will happen in the future.
Compared to other parts of the country, Arkansas has experienced relatively mild climate change so far. However, small changes can yield large impacts. So far:
Things have gotten a bit warmer. To measure temperature change, scientists have compared average temperatures in the 1970s to temperatures in the 2010s. Based on that calculation, the yearly average in Arkansas is about 1.6ºF warmer than it was a few decades ago. Even seemingly small degree changes can impact overall climate trends and subsequent effects. (NOAA Arkansas Climate Assessment 2022)
Winters have become warmer. The coldest temperatures that Hot Springs experienced in the early 2000s weren’t as cold as they used to be. In fact, they were warmer than almost all of the lowest temperatures Hot Springs experienced throughout the 1900s. (Climate exposure brief)
Rain and snow patterns have changed. Arkansas has always had variation -- periods of drought followed by storms -- but the intensity of that variation seems to have increased. The droughts are more severe, and the storms between them carry heavier rainfall totals than we have seen in a long time.
We know that climate change will continue to affect Hot Springs. Scientific models can tell us a lot about what kinds of climate change impacts the future will hold. We can’t predict exactly how specific impacts will play out, but we do know that they are coming. Good news: Humans can create some (positive) change! If we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, for instance, we can delay or prevent some of the worst impacts.
Explore Future Climate Impacts
Climate change will cause temperatures at Hot Springs to become hotter than ever. Compared to the late 1900s, average summer temperatures could increase as much as 5.6ºF by mid-century, and as much as 9.5ºF by 2100. These temperature shifts will likely change how both humans and non-humans live.
We will experience more extremely hot days. Scientists predict that temperatures in the area will be above 90ºF approximately 40 more days each year in the 2040s than in the late 20th century. (Climate.gov climate explorer). This will create uncomfortable conditions in which to live, work, and play. More hot days also will increase the frequency and intensity of droughts.
By slowing greenhouse gas emissions, we could limit the temperature increase to 3.9ºF by 2050 and 4.5ºF by 2100. (Climate toolbox)
It's currently unclear whether climate change will make Hot Springs drier or wetter. In either situation, weather will likely become more intense. Storms will be bigger, and periods of drought will be drier than previously experienced.
In one future scenario the total amount of precipitation at Hot Springs remains the same. However, climate change will likely make this precipitation less predictable. Data show that the number of extreme storms in Arkansas is trending upward and expected to increase. (NOAA Arkansas Climate Summary 2022)
It's also likely that more precipitation will fall as rain, rather than as snow, because of rising temperatures. Therefore, water from storms won’t be stored as snowpack and released gradually as the snow melts. Instead, it will enter waterways immediately, potentially causing flooding.
Temperatures at Hot Springs will rise, and precipitation will become less predictable. These changes will likely contribute to more severe droughts and more wildfires.
If Hot Springs experiences less precipitation in the future, droughts may become more frequent and will definitely become more intense. Extreme heat leads to more evaporation, causing droughts that do occur to be drier than they've been in the past.
Drier droughts and higher temperatures make wildfires more common and difficult to put out. Wildfire fuels like dead trees and leaves will become abundant. Dry heat also makes wildfires easier to start, and dry fuels allow fires to burn larger and longer. (USGS)
The Hot Springs: Impact and Action
The thermal springs are what define Hot Springs National Park. Climate change is affecting them.
To understand how climate change impacts the hot springs, it's important to understand how the springs work.
Water in the hot springs is a mix of hot and cold water. The cold water is shallow groundwater that moves from rain to springs in a matter of months. The hot water is groundwater that falls into a geothermic system. Once in that system, it travels deep into the Earth's crust, heats up, and reemerges in the springs -- 4,400 years later. Climate change can impact both of these water sources and change the ways they mix to create the thermal spring water.
Climate change raises crucial questions about the future of the hot springs. Explore two below.
Maybe! Changing weather, temperatures, and human behavior will determine whether the springs have enough water to emerge in the future.
How does water enter the springs?
Water enters the hot, geothermal part of the water cycle from an area about 16 square miles, high in the Ouachita mountains. That crucial area, called the recharge zone, is only partially inside Hot Springs National Park. Only rain that falls within the recharge zone can seep into the soil and start the 4,400 year journey to reemerge in the hot springs.
Therefore, the question of whether there will be enough water in the springs has a lot to do with the amount of water that enters the recharge zone, including the amount of water that falls as rain in the area. It also includes the amount of that water that actually makes it into the ground.
The same is true in the area where rain falls to become part of the cold, shallow groundwater component of the springs. Although that water doesn't heat up, there needs to be enough of it to keep the hot springs flowing.
How does climate change affect the system?
Climate change and human behavior can affect the components and processes of the thermal water cycle and system.
When temperatures rise, more rain water evaporates before it can enter the groundwater systems.
More droughts mean less rain in general, drying up the flow of water to the hot springs. After droughts, scientists have noticed that the amount of water in the springs decreases in a matter of months. Droughts also make soil drier and harder, making it more difficult for water to seep through into the hot springs system.
Intense storms and copious rain also are not ideal for the springs. The groundwater systems refill best when there is consistent but lighter rain. Under those conditions, water can seep into the soil without the soil becoming too saturated. Climate change will likely bring more intense storms, with more rain falling over shorter periods of time. During those storms, rainwater oversaturates the soil, and water that otherwise would enter the springs leaves the area as runoff.
Humans can affect the hot springs. Water can only enter the ground in the recharge zone if the soil is permeable. When impermeable surfaces are introduced – like asphalt or concrete – on top of the recharge zone, rainwater is prevented from entering the springs.
Also, maybe! Climate change can affect the proportions of hot springs water that comes from the cold and hot water systems.
The hot springs are special because of the thermal mineral water. Those minerals are part of the hot water system, accumulating over the thousands of years it takes to complete the water cycle.
With more intense storms, more of the water in the springs comes from the cold water system, rather than the hot water system. In other words, the water emerging from the thermal springs will be cooler and have fewer minerals.
The National Park Service is working to protect the hot springs largely through sustainability and adaptation projects. However, there are also things we can do on individual and community scales to minimize the effects of climate change!
Protecting the Recharge Zone
Park managers aim to make sure that enough water falls in the recharge zone, and as little of it as possible leaves the area as runoff.
One method to do this is through prescribed fire. Climate change is likely to bring more and bigger wildfires to Arkansas. A large, uncontrolled wildfire can burn away huge amounts of plants on the mountains. Those plants are important for the thermal water cycle, since they enable water to enter the geothermal system more slowly. Without them, more water becomes runoff, and less enters the hot springs. To prevent severe wildfires, park managers follow in the footsteps of Indigenous peoples to administer managed, or controlled fires. These fires limit the amount of fuels that build up in the area, so unexpected wildfires won't be as damaging.
Another way the National Park Service advocates for the hot springs is by keeping the ground permeable. NPS staff work with local planners to ensure construction projects consider the health and longevity of the springs.
Curious about other impacts of climate change, and what we’re doing about them? Check them out below.
Climate change doesn’t just affect the "nature" parts of the park. It also impacts human-made infrastructure, like the bathhouses on Bathhouse Row. Buildings – and especially historic buildings – are susceptible to damage from climate change.
Historic buildings degrade over time, and climate change accelerates the process. When temperatures quickly shift from very hot to very cold, it puts stress on old buildings. Additionally, major weather events like floods, storms, or fires could cause significant, abrupt structural damage.
Climate change is also changing the forest ecosystem around Hot Springs.
As conditions become hotter and more extreme, some native species won’t be able to live in Hot Springs anymore. NPS scientists predict that 29 bird species currently living in the park won’t be able to thrive here by 2100. Similarly, several native tree species won’t be able to grow here anymore. (NPS bird, USFS tree briefs)
In their place, non-native species will move in. There could be as many as 87 species of birds that join the forest ecosystem in coming years, as well as many new species of trees.
Some of these new species might enter the ecosystem peacefully. However, climate change also is increasing the number of invasive species in the forest. Invasive species take over habitat from native species. That change makes the ecosystem less diverse, and therefore less resilient. Hot Springs already has invasive species, but climate change might bring more. With changing conditions, the Hot Springs ecosystem might become ideal habitat for new invasive species.
Surviving climate change requires plants and animals to be resilient. Things like heat, storms, drought, and invasive species all put extra stress on organisms and make it harder for them to survive. To keep the ecosystem healthy, park managers must work hard to keep the forest ecosystem resilient. One way that happens is through invasive species management. Scientist also keep careful track of the species in the forest through the Heartland Inventory & Monitoring Network.
Doing Our Part
Parks As Leaders in Sustainability
The National Park Service is taking a leadership role in the fight against climate change. We're reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and making a more eco-friendly park experience for visitors. The Green Parks Plan sets out ambitious goals for all parks nationwide to reduce their ecological impact and fight climate change.
Some highlights from the Green Parks Plan:
All parks will achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045
75% of trash in parks will be diverted to recycling or compost by 2030
Parks will reduce water and energy use, and build energy-efficient buildings
Parks will make sure all eligible government cars are zero-emissions
Parks will talk to visitors and the public about sustainability and climate change!
Check out these sustainability projects at parks around the country: