Climate Change Scenario Planning Showcase

Climate change impacts on natural and cultural resources, facilities, operations, and the visitor experience are far-reaching and complex. However, parks face a major challenge in acting to anticipate future impacts: not knowing their exact timing and nature. A single forecast is likely to be inaccurate. Scenario planning—a longstanding military and industrial tool adapted by the NPS and partners in recent years for NPS purposes—addresses this challenge. It offers a framework for working with uncontrollable, irreducible uncertainty and preparing for a wide range of plausible future conditions. This structured process identifies a small set of scenarios—descriptions of potential future conditions that, collectively, characterize the range of critical uncertainties—and uses them to inform planning.
Composite of two vector images. Image on left labeled "Forecast Planning" shows an arrow into a forest. Image on right shows many arrows pointing towards forests, floods, fires, heat, etc
Forecast-based approaches to planning (left) use predictions of a single future. Scenario planning (right) works with a set of plausible futures that capture the range of conditions, providing a framework to support decisions under conditions that are uncertain and uncontrollable.
A useful set of scenarios is plausible (based on best available science), relevant (focused on the management question), and divergent (characterizes the range of future conditions) and is often an effective way to challenge entrenched assumptions and foster new thinking. Working across scenarios, managers can identify (1) current practices unlikely to succeed in the future, (2) critical uncertainties around which monitoring or in some cases new science could be developed, and (3) updated goals or actions that are robust to an uncertain and dynamic future. Scenario planning can be a highly participatory processes or a technical service, depending on the context and purpose.

On this page you'll find reports, guides, and publications related to NPS climate change scenario planning.
A wooden sign in grassy meadow, surrounded by forest
Scenario planning considers divergent potential futures

Divergent, Plausible, and Relevant Climate Futures, 2021

A key part of scenario planning is generating a list of potential future climates we may deal with. These ‘climate futures’ serve as the foundation of each scenario explored in the planning process. For example, managers consider how they would respond to a warm, wet versus a hot, dry future. In a paper recently published in the journal Climatic Change, NPS and USGS researchers describe and compare three approaches to generate the climate futures that feed into the scenario planning process. Using an example planning effort at Big Bend National Park, the paper describes each approaches’ ability to capture the range of climate conditions the park may experience in the early-, mid-, and late-21st-century. These time frames align with near-, mid-, and long-term planning horizons. In doing so, this work identifies an approach to developing climate futures that captures a broad range of climate conditions (a key ingredient to developing scenarios) across both near and long-term planning horizons. The paper also discusses suitable applications and tradeoffs for different ways to generate climate futures.
An elk stands silhouetted on a brown hill with a brown grassy valley in background

Climate Change Scenario Planning for Resource Stewardship at Wind Cave National Park, 2021

Download the report [7.9 MB PDF]
This report explains scenario planning as a climate change adaptation tool in general, then describes how it was applied to Wind Cave National Park as the second part of a pilot project to dovetail climate change scenario planning with NPS Resource Stewardship Strategy development. In the orientation phase, staff identified priority resource management topics and associated climate sensitivities. Next, this information was used to create a set of four divergent climate futures to encompass the range of ways climate could change in coming decades in the park. Finally, the scenario-based resource responses identified by staff were used to integrate climate-informed adaptations into resource stewardship goals and activities for the park's Resource Stewardship Strategy.
A setting sun is visible in a sky of purple, orange, and blue over dark mountains and a white field of dunes

Climate Change Scenario Planning to Guide Research and Resource Management at White Sands National Park, 2021

Download the report [7.7 MB PDF]
White Sands National Park supports a diverse array of plants and wildlife, including many endemic species. To better inform research and management, a White Sands Scenario Planning Workshop used a scenario planning approach to identify potential impacts to resources under three divergent-but-plausible climate futures: 1) Warm/No Precipitation Change, 2) Hot and Wet, and 3) Hot and Dry. This process developed a set of robust climate-resource scenarios to help identify key vulnerabilities and knowledge gaps.
Cover of RSS Guidance PDF file

Resource Stewardship Strategy Supplemental Guidance, 2020

Download guidance document [2.4 MB PDF]
Resource Stewardship Strategies are strategic plans for National Park Service units, intended to help park managers achieve and maintain desired resource conditions. This document provides a repeatable methodology to more thoroughly address climate change in Resource Stewardship Strategies through scenario planning—a tool for supporting management decisions in the face of uncertainty. Scenario planning enables stakeholders to identify key climate sensitivities of resources, examine a range of relevant and plausible future conditions, and explore management options that can be effective across scenarios.
View of Devils Tower in the distance with fall foliage in the foreground

NPS / A. Locklear

Climate Change Scenario Planning for Resource Stewardship: Applying a Novel Approach in Devils Tower National Monument, 2020

This report [8.5 MB PDF] introduces scenario planning as a climate change adaptation tool, then describes how it was applied to Devils Tower National Monument in the context of a first-of-its-kind, pilot project to dovetail scenario planning with NPS Resource Stewardship Strategy (RSS) development. An RSS is a long-range planning tool for a National Park Service unit to achieve its desired natural and cultural resource conditions, and therefore can benefit from a flexible tool for working with climate change uncertainty. This report documents the climate-resource scenario development part of the overall process and complements RSS supplemental guidance that draws on lessons from the Devils Tower project to describe how to incorporate climate change scenario planning outcomes into an RSS.
Aerial view of a verdant valley with mountains in the background

NPS / M. Woolley

Implications of Climate Change for the Water Supply of the Chisos Mountains Developed Area, 2019

Groundwater discharged from Oak Spring currently serves as the sole water source for the Chisos Basin--a hub of visitor infrastructure and services within Big Bend National Park. Given a known link between precipitation and spring discharge, the NPS undertook an analysis to clarify which strategies and investments might be best at Oak Spring given climate change projections, or whether the park should seek to develop an alternative water source. The resulting report [5 MB PDF] helps clarify the relationship between Oak Spring and contemporary climate conditions, and uses projected future climate to assess long-term reliability of discharge from the spring.

Large bison standing in a prairie in Badlands National Park

NPS / B. Barker

Implications of Climate-Resource Scenarios for Badlands National Park Resource Management

Badlands National Park hosts a myriad of natural and cultural resources, including bison and black-footed ferrets, the mixed grass prairie in which they live, and historic buildings, trails, and roads. All are sensitive to climate, but anticipating precisely how climate change will affect each is difficult. Despite this challenge, park resource managers must make forward-looking decisions and act to meet resource management goals.

This recently published project brief [2.7 MB PDF] summarizes results of a collaborative effort—involving resource managers, subject-matter experts, and a larger climate change adaptation team—to identify potential climate impacts and management responses in Badlands National Park.

Aerial view looking at grassy valley surrounded by reddish-brown badland formations

South Dakota Scenario Planning Workshop Summary

This workshop summary report summarizes project work for public and tribal lands in the southwest South Dakota grasslands focal area, with an emphasis on Badlands National Park and Buffalo Gap National Grassland. The report explains scenario planning as an adaptation tool in general, then describes how it was applied to the focal area in three phases. Priority resource management and climate uncertainties were identified in the orientation phase. Local climate summaries for relevant, divergent, and challenging climate scenarios were developed in the second phase. In the final phase, a two-day scenario planning workshop held January 20-21, 2016 in Rapid City, South Dakota, featured scenario development and implications, testing management decisions, and methods for operationalizing scenario planning outcomes.
Aerial view looking down at river with green grassy field alongside. Field contains over a dozen large round depressions

North Dakota Scenario Planning Workshop Summary

This workshop report summarizes project work for public and tribal lands in the central North Dakota focal area, with an emphasis on Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site. The report explains scenario planning as an adaptation tool in general, then describes how it was applied to the central North Dakota focal area in three phases. Priority resource management and climate uncertainties were identified in the orientation phase. Local climate summaries for relevant, divergent, and challenging climate scenarios were developed in the second phase. In the final phase, a two-day scenario planning workshop held November 12-13, 2015 in Bismarck, ND, featured scenario development and implications, testing management decisions, and methods for operationalizing scenario planning outcomes.
Visitor enjoys Acadia view

NPS / M. Holly

Acadia Scenario Planning Workshop Summary

The Acadia National Park Climate Change Scenario Planning Workshop Summary [4.8 MB PDF] summarizes outcomes from a two-day scenario planning workshop for Acadia National Park in October 2015. The primary objective of the workshop was to help Acadia senior leadership make management and planning decisions based on up-to-date climate science and assessments of future uncertainty. The workshop was also designed as a training program, helping build participants' capabilities to develop and use scenarios.

The "focal question" for this workshop was stated as follows: How should ACAD plan and prepare for climate change and related effects, especially with respect to issues including:

- Coastal and inland infrastructure
- Staffing and park operations
- Ecosystem management
Canada yew in the Apostle Islands forest understory
Canada yew dominates the Apostle Islands forest understory

Apostle Islands Scenario Planning Workshop Summary

The Apostle Islands Climate Change Scenario Planning Workshop Summary [1.7 MB PDF] summarizes outcomes from a two‐day scenario workshop in April 2015 for Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin. The primary objective of the session was (i) to help senior leadership make management and planning decisions based on up‐to‐date climate science and assessments of future uncertainty. The session was also designed (ii) to assess the effectiveness of using regional‐ level climate science to craft local scenarios. Finally, it provided an opportunity to (iii) introduce scenarios to participants and further their capabilities in scenario practice.

A blue lake reflects forest under a blue sky with rocky outcrops to left
Isle Royale Scenario Planning Workshop Report

The Isle Royale climate change scenarios Workshop Report [6.4 MB PDF] summarizes the Isle Royale climate change scenario planning workshop, convened in January 2013 to examine how climate change may affect the park’s resources, with an emphasis on the island’s forests and wolf and moose populations.

Workshop participants developed four divergent scenarios for the period 2013-2050, based on the range of projected climate change. The ‘Least Change’ scenario was the minimum level of expected change, while the other three scenarios incorporated greater climate change and additional associated disturbance events. The ‘Summer Drought, Wind, and Fire’ scenario included punctuated dry summer periods and an increased probability of wind storms. The ‘Warmer than Duluth’ scenario had temperature increases from the high end of projections (+6.5 °F) while the ‘Isle Savanna’ scenario included warm temperatures (+5 °F) and increasingly frequent drought events (i.e., strong precipitation variability). These descriptive narratives present potential futures based on the range of climate projections and scientific understanding of species interactions and ecosystem responses to climate change. Participants then explored several options for resource management within each of the scenarios.

Cover of scenario planning handbook: a red brick fort is surrounded by water

Using Scenarios to Explore Climate Change: A Handbook for Practitioners

Download the handbook [7.3 MB PDF] and the 2014 addendum [700 KB PDF]

This handbook describes the five-step process for developing climate change scenarios during a series of training workshops in 2010 and 2011. The authors created this guide as a reference for workshop participants, who possess some familiarity with scenario planning. Detailed instructions are provided on how to accomplish each step of the scenario-building process; appendices include a hypothetical scenario exercise that demonstrates how to implement the process, some early examples of how national parks are using climate change scenarios to inform planning and decision making, and advice on designing and facilitating scenario workshops. Building scenarios is a dynamic, flexible, iterative practice that you can tailor to fit your needs—the handbook can be used as a reference when designing scenarios and scenario exercises.

Last updated: August 24, 2021

Tools

  • Site Index