Park Visitation and Climate Change

Warming Temperatures Likely to Alter Visitation across the National Park System
Line graph showing relationship between temperature and visitation
Figure 1. Relationship between historical (1979-2013) monthly average temperature and visitation (proportion of annual) across the U.S. national park system. Observed visitation data (black circles and error bars) are based on 2.5 °C bins, model estimates in green. (Click figure to enlarge)
Project summary [600 KB PDF]
Journal article [1.8 MB PDF]

Climate change will affect not only natural and cultural resources within national parks, but also visitation patterns. Where, when, and how many people visit parks is likely to change with continued warming. For example, visitors may avoid extremely warm months in low-latitude parks and the visitation season may extend across additional weeks to months at northern parks. Whether park visitors track climate change and shift their behavior will depend on multiple environmental and socioeconomic factors. However, understanding potential change in visitation based on historical trends and future patterns of temperature change is a crucial first step for park managers and local communities to anticipate, plan for, and proactively influence future visitation.

Recently published research sought to understand the temperature--visitation relationship in 340 units of the U.S. national park system, from Guam, Hawai‘i, and Alaska to the contiguous 48 states and islands in the Caribbean. Researchers evaluated the historical relationship between long-term average monthly air temperature and visitation (1979-2013), and then modeled potential future visitation (2041-2060) based on two warming-climate scenarios and two visitation-growth scenarios.
Two maps showing increases across different parks
Figure 2. Potential future total annual visitation (2041-2060) expressed as a percentage of historical values (1979-2013) under two futures: a) minor warming and low visitation growth and b) major warming and high visitation growth. (Click figure to enlarge)
Study Highlights:
  • Long-term historical monthly visitation across the National Park System is strongly tied to mean air temperatures
    • 95% of parks show a significant relationship between visitation and air temperature
    • 69% of the variation in visitation across the system is associated with air temperature
    • Visitation increases with warming temperatures, but only up to a point; visitation declines as monthly average temperatures exceed roughly 80 °F
  • Similar to other species, human visitors to parks are likely to alter their behavior in response to climate change
  • Based on the historical relationship of air temperature and visitor use, the National Park System and most individual parks show increases in potential future (2041-2060) visitation with warming temperatures
    • 8-23% increase in total annual visits across the park system
    • 2-4 week expansion of the visitation season, on average, at individual parks
  • Some parks with already very warm months are projected to see decreases in potential visitation and/or shifts in the timing of visitation to cooler months
The National Park Service is about to begin its second century of preserving America’s natural and cultural heritage and providing for visitor enjoyment. The coming decades are likely to see changes in climate and changes in visitor use patterns and preferences. Parks and surrounding communities will need to adapt to both the challenges and opportunities posed by changing visitation. This project is part of ongoing work of the NPS Climate Change Response Program and collaborators to support park adaptation to changing conditions.

Last updated: June 26, 2015

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