Climate Change

A female park ranger in flat hat, green pants, and grey shirt looks out over very smoky skies and low visibility. She should be able to see Whiskeytown Lake from her vantage point, but she can't because of the smoke.
Where's the lake?! Invisible due to heavy smoke, for five and a half weeks in August and September 2021, hazardous air quality sat over Whiskeytown Lake. Smoky skies and wildfires have been increasing in the past several decades, in part due to climate change.
Whiskeytown National Recreation Area is a "traditional" national park in that the heaviest visitation falls in the summertime from Memorial Day to Labor Day. But throughout August 2021, Whiskeytown was eerily quiet. Boaters didn't boat. Swimmers didn't swim. Anglers didn't angle. And interpretive park rangers didn't facilitate kayak and paddleboard programs to the public. Extremely heavy smoke sat over Whiskeytown and brought with it the most toxic air quality in park history (one longtime employee remembers that only the summer of 2008 was comparable).

With major fires blazing to the east, south, and west of Whiskeytown, air quality indexes regularly recorded extremely hazardous health conditions. Low visibility was the norm. Because indoor air quality was just as bad as outside in many cases, the park was forced to spend thousands of dollars purchasing air purifiers so employees could continue to complete office work safely. Biggest of all, park visitors - the American public - were largely unable to enjoy their national recreation area.

Smoky skies and fires have been increasing in California over the course of the last several decades, and climate change is one of the reasons for this. What is climate change and how is it affecting Whiskeytown? What can you and I do to mitigate the effects of it? Continue reading to learn about climate change as it relates to Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.
 

What is climate change?

Climate change is the change in global or regional climate patterns over time. This term is most commonly used to refer to the global warming trend of unusually high surface temperatures we have seen since the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s. The vast majority of professional scientists attribute this recent warming to increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide produced by the use of fossil fuels. To a lesser extent, buildup of other greenhouse gases such as methane are also contributing to warming. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane trap heat that otherwise would be released into space. Although there is natural fluctuation of temperatures on Earth, the levels of carbon dioxide in the air and the acceleration of average global temperatures we are currently seeing are unprecedented.

According to NASA, 2010-2019 was the warmest decade on record, and 2016 and 2020 tie for the hottest years on record. This kind of heat poses substantial risks to human health, and deaths are increasing due to both heat itself and more frequent occurrence of natural disasters. Many extreme weather events such as wildfires, heatwaves, hurricanes, and droughts have happened more frequently and with more intensity than we’ve seen historically.

We can compare today’s climate trends with prehistoric climate trends using tree rings and ice cores to show that the current conditions are not normal. Growth cycles can be seen in tree rings, and this gives scientists clues as to what the weather was like during the tree’s lifespan. This tells us about climate history going back hundreds and even thousands of years. Ice cores have air bubbles that preserve pockets of prehistoric air and can indicate the levels of different gases in the air at different times throughout history. These methods both point to a climate that is vastly different than anything we have seen before

 
Carr Fire and Whiskeytown Lake at night. Large red and orange flames rising in the woods beyond the lake.
Carr Fire and Whiskeytown Lake. Fires have been a part of the park's ecosystems for thousands of years, but recently, fires in the western U.S. have become larger and more destructive. Climate change is one of the reasons for this.

Climate Change at Whiskeytown

Because the daily weather has been recorded at park headquarters since 1960, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area has been able to use this 60+ years of data to see how the local climate has changed during this time. So, what does this data tell us?

First and foremost, it’s getting warmer at Whiskeytown, especially at night. Since 1960, the daily average low temperature has increased by 4.5 degrees, while the daily average high temperature has increased by 1.6 degrees. How do these increasing temperatures effect your visits to the park? How will they effect your future visits?

It deserves mentioning here that in late July of 2018, during the beginning of the Carr Fire, temperatures at park headquarters were recorded at 111 degrees, thus tying the all-time high for these days. The Carr Fire itself was the most destructive fire in National Park System history, with 97% of the national recreation area burned and over 100 structures lost.

Beyond warming temperatures, Whiskeytown’s weather data shows that the 60 inches of annual average rainfall has remained about the same since 1960. However, it's important to note that the norm for decades has been winter precipitation varying considerably from year to year. As an example of this, the winter before and directly after the Carr Fire, the park received close to 100 inches of precipitation during both winters. While the ping-ponging back and forth between really wet winters and really dry winters seems to be relatively standard for the area, the past three winters and years of drought have been record-setting for the park. Again, thanks to our daily weather recordings at Park Headquarters, we know the following...

  1. February 2020 was the first February on record with 0.00 inches of precipitation. February is historically one of the wettest months in the park.
  2. The second driest February on record was February 2022, when just 0.04 inches of rain fell on park headquarters.
  3. The water year occurring July 1st, 2020 to June 30th, 2021 was the driest year on record. 21 inches of rain fell on park headquarters during this 12-month period, or only 35% of normal.

What have you observed in regards to climate change at Whiskeytown? What will you observe in future years at Whiskeytown? When will the next large fire hit Whiskeytown?

 
Solar power farm at the Whiskey Creek Water Treatment Facility.
Solar power farm at the Whiskey Creek Water Treatment facility.

Mitigating Climate Change at Whiskeytown

The National Park Service takes climate change and mitigation efforts seriously. Whiskeytown National Recreation Area first began installing solar panels in the 1990s and today, part of the Visitor Center, a wastewater treatment facility, and dozens of parking lot streetlights are powered by the sun. Solar energy is renewable and does not emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

A much larger non-polluting electricity source is the Judge Francis Carr Powerhouse. Operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, this hydroelectric facility has the capacity of powering 120,000 homes.

Whiskeytown is also working to mitigate climate change by educating visitors. In summer 2021, the park employed a California Climate Action Corps fellow courtesy of funding by the Office of the California Governor. This fellow, Corina Reed, processed thousands of daily weather entries from park headquarters so that we could publish the data on this webpage. Corina also wrote an article about her experiences in the park.

Finally, the national recreation area has an active recycling program for aluminum cans, plastic bottles, and cardboard. Re-cycling these products uses much less energy than creating these products from scratch, thus recycling conserves energy. The park collects, sorts, and then takes approximately 20,000 aluminum cans, plastic bottles, and cardboard boxes to a local recycling company each year.

 
Beach Bus! A white transport shuttle in a parking lot at Whiskeytown.
Beach Bus! Ridesharing is a great way to save money on expensive gasoline and it also reduces the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. Ride the Beach Bus to Whiskeytown and you can also get into the park for free.

Ways You can Help

1. Consider using alternate forms of transportation: thanks to our partners at Redding Area Bus Authority (RABA), the Beach Bus provides FREE transportation to and from the park during the summer. Ridesharing helps minimize your carbon footprint by keeping cars off the road.

2. Abide by local fire restrictions: during particularly dry summers, Whiskeytown bans open flame fires (campfire and charcoal BBQing). Guests who follow these rules help protect our forests by preventing unwanted wildfires from starting. Forests are a huge asset because they absorb and store carbon dioxide from the air. Wildfires are a naturally occurring phenomenon but in recent years a significant portion of them have been human caused and have been very destructive.

3. Analyze your lifestyle: using a carbon footprint calculator, you can figure out which lifestyle habits you have that are producing the most carbon dioxide. Some easy ways to decrease your carbon footprint are driving and flying less or changing your diet so that you are eating more locally sourced food and less meat.

Did You Know? "A Climate of Change at Whiskeytown" is available as a free program to virtual audiences. School classrooms and other organized groups can schedule this ranger-led program by emailing whis_information@nps.gov.

To learn more about climate change in the national parks and to see how the National Park Service is responding, visit www.nps.gov/climatechange.

Article written by Dani Niswander and Scott Einberger. 2021-2022.

Last updated: April 15, 2022

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