Climate Change

Looking out over a subalpine lake surrounded by patchy snow to the summit of Mount Rainier.
The wilderness of Mount Rainier: from a glaciated volcanic peak to old growth forest, as seen from the Tolmie Lookout Trail above Eunice Lake (July 20, 2013).

NPS Photo

Mount Rainier's Wilderness: A Defense against Climate Change
More than 97 percent of Mount Rainier National Park is legally designated as wilderness, which includes glaciers, forests, meadows, lakes, and other wetlands. While enduring impacts from climate change, wilderness is also recognized as a strong defense against it. In 1964, when Congress approved the Wilderness Act, climate change was not yet recognized as a major threat. Fifty years later, scientists around the world and here at Mount Rainier have identified impacts of climate change on wilderness and ultimately our life on earth.

The Wilderness Act defines wilderness as an area where Earth and its community of life are "untrammeled by man," but the Act also requires that managers preserve and protect wilderness in its natural condition.

To help anticipate the advancing effects of climate change, scientists look to the past. Much of our knowledge about prior climates has come from old trees, wood, and pollen cores that increasingly can be found only in undisturbed wilderness lands. Trees, aside from providing shade and cool, absorb and lock away carbon dioxide in the wood, roots, and leaves. A forest keeps carbon from becoming available as a "greenhouse" gas that raises the Earth's temperature.

Much of Mount Rainier's wilderness is subalpine and alpine environments. The boundary between these is controlled by extremes in temperature, moisture, and wind. Changes to any of these extremes affect the annual snowpack which eventually impacts the long-lived vegetation in both ecosystems. An upward movement of the subalpine treeline would shrink the alpine tundra causing a possible loss of both plant and animal species. Glaciers found in Mount Rainier's wilderness provide storage and the slow release of cool waters during summer. Changes in temperature affect the timing of this release, resulting in warmer summer streams. Warmer water may not be suitable for native bull trout and tailed frogs that are dependent upon cold headwater streams.

Wilderness, due to its large acreage and elevation range, provides for some species to adapt to climate change. As temperatures increase and ecosystems change, wildlife species will migrate, looking for suitable environments. Several animals inhabiting subalpine and alpine environments in the park are vulnerable to changes in climate including the Cascade red fox, white-tailed ptarmigan, and pika.

As Mount Rainier's wilderness defends against climate change, it will potentially suffer many impacts. Air pollutants, such as mercury, may increase in lakes, ponds, and wetlands under warming temperatures. Invasive species may expand and habitats for native species may be fragmented. Competition between species, disease, and disturbance—wildfire, landslides, etc.—may increase.

Wilderness, by providing for carbon storage, large acreage, and a broad elevation range, provides important mitigation to climate change impacts but still requires our protection.

Blooming wildflowers fill a subalpine meadow on the slopes of Mount Rainier.
Wildflowers bloom in a subalpine meadow on Mount Rainier.

Photo by Elli J. Theobald

MeadoWatch: Citizens Tracking Climate Change
The blooming of Mount Rainier's gorgeous wildflower meadows is inextricably tied to the amount of snow on the ground. When snow melts earlier, flowers bloom earlier. When snow melts later, flowers bloom later. But as average temperatures increase with climate change, how does this affect the wildflowers so many of us enjoy?

Well, you can help us find out! You can contribute to research at the University of Washington by sharing your wildflower photos. Each of your pictures is an "observation" of when and where wildflowers bloom. These data can help uncover how climate change affects the timing of the seasons.

All you need to do is take photos of wildflowers (close enough to identify the species) from anywhere in Mount Rainier National Park! Make sure your photos are date-stamped and geo-tagged (most smartphones automatically enable this feature), and visit for instructions on how to contribute your photos to our project. You will be helping build a long-term data set we use to understand the impacts of climate change in Mount Rainier National Park.
Two volunteers with butterfly nets follow a trail through a blooming wilflower meadow.
Volunteers assist in carrying out butterfly surveys in subalpine meadows.

NPS Photo

Cascades Butterfly Project: Monitoring Subalpine Butterflies as Climate Changes
Butterflies and plants are sensitive indicators of climate change because air temperature influences their life cycles and distribution. Temperatures also affect the pace and timing of wildflower blooming, which butterflies depend on for food and shelter. The Cascades Butterfly Project involved scientists and volunteers from North Cascades National Park Service Complex, Mount Rainier National Park, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

Learn more:
Cascades Butterfly Project Information Bulletin - April 14, 2017
Cascades Butterfly Project - 2016 Summary of Accomplishments
Summary of Butterflies Documented by Survey Route (2011-2016)


Climate Change at Mount Rainier - Research & Resources

Last updated: August 10, 2018

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

55210 238th Avenue East
Ashford, WA 98304


(360) 569-2211

Contact Us