Climate Change Resiliency

The National Park Service (NPS) maintains some of the most iconic buildings and monuments in the United States, many of which are located in areas vulnerable to the effects of climate change. To preserve these historically and culturally significant assets for future generations, the NPS is working to foster climate change resiliency in its facilities across the country.

The Sustainable Operations and Maintenance Branch (SOMB) of the NPS Park Facility Management Division (PFMD) ensures that parks consider the effects of climate change and plan for climate change resiliency before building, renovating, or making significant capital investments into agency facilities. To do so, SOMB—in collaboration with other NPS offices such as the Climate Change Response Program (CCRP) —provides innovative guidance, tools, and resources to assist park planners in identifying the risks posed by climate change.

How does climate change affect the environment?
According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s Fourth National Climate Assessment, long-term impacts of climate change include:
  • Changes in precipitation patterns
  • Rising temperatures
  • Sea level rise
  • Stronger, more intense hurricanes
  • Longer frost-free season
  • More frequent droughts and heat waves
  • Melting glaciers
The Hale o Keawe Template at Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park
The Hale o Keawe temple at Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historic Park in Hawai’i. Its location on the shoreline means it is affected by even minor sea level changes.

Photo: NPS

Climate change resiliency refers to the capacity of an asset to withstand and recover from climate change-related impacts. For NPS facilities, planning for resiliency can lead to buildings, transportation, and infrastructure that are better equipped to withstand natural hazards and climate stressors, such as coastal flooding and more frequent and more intense storms. To identify resilience opportunities for the built environment (i.e., buildings, roads, etc.) at national parks, the NPS has taken steps to assess climate change vulnerability—an asset’s propensity to be adversely impacted by climate change. In turn, vulnerability for the built environment is influenced by two key metrics:
  • Exposure: Extent to which something is located in an area experiencing direct climate change impacts (e.g. temperature or precipitation changes) or indirect climate change impacts (e.g., sea-level rise).
  • Sensitivity: How something is affected when exposed to an impact of climate change.
Climate change poses unprecedented challenges to national parks, with some parks already feeling the effects of altered ecosystems and coastal inundation. As noted in the next section, however, national parks also present valuable opportunities to investigate the impacts of climate change and identify paths toward greater resiliency.
Vulnerability Assessments at Gateway
Vulnerability assessments have been conducted at many coastal parks, including Gateway National Recreation Area.

Photo: Western Carolina University

NPS Facility ResiliencyThe NPS has undertaken efforts within national parks to help inform climate change resilience planning decisions. These initiatives have included vulnerability assessments, as well as projects aimed at improving operational resilience.

Coastal Hazards and Climate Change Asset Vulnerability Assessment Tool

In 2014, SOMB began a partnership with Western Carolina University's Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines to develop a Coastal Hazards and Climate Change Asset Vulnerability Assessment Tool. This tool was deployed at several coastal parks to assist staff in conducting standardized vulnerability assessments in the built environment. While the assessments focused on assets at risk to sea level rise and other coastal hazards, the tool’s general methodology can also be applied to natural hazards and climate stressors in non-coastal parks.

The tool assesses the vulnerability of NPS assets to coastal hazards and climate change through four key steps:
  1. Analyze the exposure of a park’s assets to coastal hazards and climate change through indicators such as flooding, storm surge, sea level rise, erosion/coastal proximity, and historical flooding.
  2. Analyze the sensitivity of a park’s assets to gauge how it will be affected when exposed to coastal hazards and climate change impacts. This is assessed through flood damage potential (elevated), storm resistance and condition, historical damage, and protective engineering, with additional sensitivity indicators used for bridges.
  3. Analyze the vulnerability of a park’s assets by summing up the exposure and sensitivity scores.
  4. Finally, reduce the vulnerability of key assets within the park by identifying applicable adaptation strategies.
Adaptation Strategies
To reduce the vulnerability of structures and transportation assets (i.e., roads) to damage from coastal hazards and climate change, parks could apply the following strategies:
  • Elevate the structure, critical utilities, and transportation assets to reduce the risk of flood damage.
  • Relocate the asset to an area less likely to experience coastal hazard impacts.
  • Reduce the likelihood of damage by protecting the asset with an engineered structure or landscape modifications (e.g., drainage).
  • Decommission and remove the vulnerable asset.
  • Redesign the asset to be more storm-resistant.
  • Downgrade the engineering of assets to reduce rebuilding costs after damage and offer greater flexibility for replacement; for example, a paved parking lot at a seashore could be replaced with a shell material lot.
Improving Operational Resilience at Coastal National Parks

Building upon park vulnerability assessments, in 2019 the NPS partnered with the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP) to analyze climate change resiliency opportunities related to energy, transportation assets, fuel delivery, communication, cybersecurity, and water systems. Climate change’s impacts are diverse and far-reaching, making it important to assess the threats and vulnerabilities unique to various sectors, such as those listed below.
Climate change’s impacts are diverse and far-reaching, making it important to assess the threats and vulnerabilities unique to various sectors, such as various aspects of electricity, transportation, buildings, and agriculture.
Credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Fort walls at San Juan National Historic Site in Puerto Rico
San Juan National Historic Site, Puerto Rico

Photo: NPS

Ultimately, this initiative to improve operational resilience at coastal parks is aiming toward broader applications, with the long-term goal of developing a planning guide to inform resilience planning decisions for both NPS and other federal agencies. The project examines resilience opportunities for three pilot parks with representative resilience needs in different climate zones including Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historic Park (Hawai’i), Cape Cod National Seashore (Massachusetts), and San Juan National Historic Site (Puerto Rico).

The parks in this resilience study inhabit unique environments, with distinct cultural and historical features that demand tailored resiliency strategies. While parks in Hawai’i, Massachusetts, and Puerto Rico may experience different threats from climate change, there are common data sources that can help identify resiliency best practices for each park, including:
  • Energy audits
  • Renewable energy assessments
  • Transportation/fleet assessments
  • Resilience studies
  • Continuity of operations plans
  • Utility information (e.g., energy and water cost and usage)
Every park will face its own climate change impacts, and the potential resilience strategies for each park will need to be further assessed for cost, effectiveness, and feasibility. By informing the resilience decision-making process, the NPS and its partners position U.S. national parks to better prepare for, respond to, and recover from the impacts of climate change—in whatever form they take.
Other Resources
To learn more about NPS efforts to address climate change in coastal and other critical environments, visit the following NPS web pages:


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    Last updated: April 23, 2021