Climate Change Is Ravaging Our National Parks
A warming planet, increased storms, and wildfires are creating a level of infrastructure collapse that’s expensive and devastating
Over the summer, Denali National Park shut down its historic 92-mile road, the only artery into the rugged center of the park, at mile 42. This decision was preceded by heavy rains in early August, which triggered a landslide in the Polychrome Pass area that accelerated downhill at a rate of over ten inches per day. The road closed to buses and private vehicles on August 24.
“Changing climate is driving frozen ground to thaw, resulting in unpredictable and increasing landslide movement rates… that are unprecedented in the history of the park road,” said park superintendent Don Striker in a statement. He later added that rapidly thawing permafrost has compounded the issue, making the road unsafe for tourists.
What was once considered a manageable slide that only needed repair every two to three years in the 1960s has since grown into a force requiring hypervigilance by the Park Service. In 2018, the road’s slumping increased to a rate of half an inch per day. By August 2020, that number had jumped to three and a half inches.
“As the ground there continues to melt, it has an acceleration process of its own,” said Vanessa Jucszak, executive director of the Denali Chamber of Commerce. She explained that the reason this small section of road is so tricky to divert is because, once permafrost melts, the ground will slump until it hits an impermeable layer like clay, then slide along that layer, making any new changes structurally questionable.
The Park Service proposed a $55 million bridge around the landslide to connect to the current road and avoid losing scenic views, and money for the repairs has been allocated into President Biden’s proposed 2022 budget, but the issue at hand is far larger than one road in one park.
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