Seeing Climate Change in my 22 years as a Park Ranger

For almost 23 years, I have been a summer seasonal park ranger at Crater Lake National Park, Oregon. The biggest change I saw in the park during this time was climate change.

Park visitors will gasp when I mention how long I have worked there. They try to joke, “But, you look so young, did you start working here when you were 8 years old?” Hearing that joke so often, I now respond, “No, I started working here when I was 72 years old. How do I look?”
Seriously, I do think the visitors are correct: maybe spending my summers working at Crater Lake National Park has kept me looking young. The park rangers there like to brag that Crater Lake has some of the cleanest air in the United States. No major industries or cities are nearby the park. The water is pure enough that I have drank directly from the lake while narrating the boat tours.
The hiking in the park is incredible, over 100 miles of trails. I love hiking the peak trails up Watchman, Garfield, Mt. Scott, Crater, or Union Peak. When you stand top of the peaks, you just see the lake or evergreen forests for many miles in any direction. You see very little sign of civilization, except for a occasional road, the Crater Lake Lodge or distant scattering of development in the Klamath Basin.
I absolutely love my job giving ranger talks. The variety of my job is amazing: narrating the boat tours, trolley tours, junior ranger talks for kids, historical lodge talks, afternoon and sunset guided hikes, step on bus tours, special request talks, evening campfire programs, and chatting with visitors at the visitor center. I love educating and entertaining people so this job has been a wonderful fit.
Oh, did I mention all the friends I made working there over the years?
Yes, I will admit it: maybe working there has kept me looking young.
Stumbling Across Climate Change While Working in the Everglades
Unfortunately, Crater Lake has only been a summer seasonal job for me.
From 1992 to 2008, I worked as a winter seasonal park ranger in Everglades National Park in south Florida. My favorite memory from my time there was canoeing in an area of Florida Bay called, Snake Bight. Isn’t that a funny name? Bight spelled b-i-g-h-t is actually a nautical term for a bay within a bay. This coastal bay is located south of Miami and north of the Florida Keys.
The best time to canoe there was the winter, when the average temperature in south Florida is 77 degrees. It is a little humid, but not as oppressive as summer. The cool winter breezes would be an amazing relief as you work up sweat canoeing and get the sticky salt water spray on you. Because you totally leave civilization to canoe to Snake Bight, it is so silent The only sounds you hear are the canoe paddle hitting the water and the sea water sloshing on the outside hull of the canoe.
An American Crocodile lurking in the water

I never saw any snakes when I canoed to Snake Bight. However, the variety of wildlife I did see there was incredible. The bay is very shallow only about 2 to 4 feet deep during high tide! Thus, if you fall out of your canoe, you just stand up. Because it is so shallow, it becomes an all you can eat seafood buffet for the birds: shrimps, crabs, oysters, small fish, etc. I will never forget seeing thousands of tiny shorebirds that would take off in flight when they would be suddenly pursued by a Peregrine Falcon. They swoop in like a jet pilot to go after these clouds of birds that would suddenly turn like they were one organism.

While canoeing around that area I got to see the endangered American Crocodile while would lurk in the water like a WWII U Boat submarine with its iron grey color. They can get up to 8 to 12 feet long. However, they were always leery of the canoes and kayaks which they considered to be larger and more dominating animals.

My highlight though was seeing flocks of up to 40 Flamingos. They stand up to 4 feet tall and have a muted pink color. They would let me circle around them in the canoe as they would stand and feed on the bay shrimp. However, if I got too close, they would suddenly run to gain speed to go into flight. In flight, they have a 6 foot wing span. These birds have a jet black colors on the back half of their wingspans that is only revealed when they take off in flight. These birds are so skinny and gangly looking that you wonder how on earth can they stand or fly so gracefully.It was one of highlights of my life to see the Flamingos, crocodiles, Peregrine Falcons, and all the other amazing wildlife I got to see there.

While working as park ranger in the Everglades, I quickly learned that visitors expect rangers to know everything, don’t they?

 

Visitors started asking me about this global warming thing that I personally had no knowledge. Soon after I started giving ranger talks in the Everglades in 1998, I started read all I could about climate change so I could be well informed. In the summer of 1999, I went to a Florida City bookstore on my days off and bought the book, Laboratory Earth: The Planetary Gamble We Cannot Afford to Lose by  climate scientist Dr. Stephen Schneider (1945-2010) of Stanford University.

I then became hooked ever since to to all the books I could find about the science of climate change.
Unfortunately, I soon learned human could easily cause climate change sea level in the Everglades to rise 3 feet in 21st Century.
Park Ranger Steve Robinson
That really shocked me most of the Everglades could be lost due to climate change, but especially the magnificent Snake Bight. The crocodiles, shorebirds, Peregrine Falcons, and beautiful Flamingos could all lose this ideal habitat that is actually very rare in the overly developed Florida.My mentor, veteran park ranger Steve Robinson (1950-2007), who was a fourth generation Floridian and a worked in the Everglades for 25 years. He loved to canoe sail along the mangrove coastline. Steve shared with me his observations how salt water intrusion was changing the mangrove habitat of the Everglades. The science I had read back then was that sea level rose in the Everglades 8 inches in the 20th century. That was four times more than the sea level rose in last several centuries. The mangroves live in a brackish tidal mixture of two to four feet of water, where the fresh water of the Everglades meets the salt water of the Gulf of Mexico. In some cases, the higher sea water, plus human coastal development along the coastal Everglades had help erode the natural mangrove barriers in some areas.

Climate change scared me as a distant threat caused by humans. Unfortunately, I also learned as a ranger that Everglades National Park is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world. Coastal human development spreading from Miami and Ft. Lauderdale shrunk the historical natural Everglades ecosystem in half. Most of the natural Everglades water in the went to the urban areas and farms. As a result, the ecosystem had lost about 90% of its fish, birds, and alligators since early 20th century. On some days, a visitor could still see some alligators and birds. However, all the historical reports talked about the natural Everglades once teeming with fish, birds and other wildlife.
As I spent more time in the Everglades, it did look like the ecosystem severely beaten up by humans.
I thought it was a breath of fresh air to return to Crater Lake each summer. I had the impression that Crater Lake was relatively free of the climate change and human caused environmental damage impacting the Everglades. I soon learned I was wrong.

 

Stumbling Across Climate Change While Working in Crater Lake National Park
 
Currently and as far back as 2008, my good friend and lead interpretation ranger, Dave Grimes, wrote all the articles for the summer visitor guide or newspaper Reflections. Interviewing the park scientists and complying historical data enabled Grimes to write various articles that put together a picture of the climate change impact on Crater Lake.
From Grimes articles, I composed a handout on the Impact of Climate Change on Crater Lake, first published in 2013. While composing this document, I submitted my document to the park scientists to make sure the science in the article was accurate.
This is what I learned how climate change is impacting Crater Lake:
1. Less snow is falling in the park.
Total annual accumulation of snowfall at Crater Lake is around 533 inches every year or 44 feet. It is enough snow that it almost buries the four story Crater Lake lodge in the winter.Since the 1940s, totals have been trending downward by decade and climate researchers expect the trend to continue. Scientists predict the Pacific Northwest will experience even less snow and warmer temperatures in the decades to come.

Most snow that falls in the park eventually leaves the park to nourish the rivers of southern Oregon and northern California. Less snow falling in the park means less water is leaving the park to support cities, ranches, farms, and wildlife downstream.

 

2. The waters of Crater Lake are getting warmer.

Scientific lake monitoring began in 1965. Since then, scientists have documented the waters of Crater Lake getting warmer. Surface temperatures in the summer have risen at an average rate of 1 degree Fahrenheit (.6 Celsius) per decade, from 54 degrees Fahrenheit (12 degrees Celsius) in a typical year in the 1960s to 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius) today. Similar increases have been seen in other North American lakes, including Lake Tahoe and Lake Superior.

It remains to be seen what impacts (if any) this increase will have on the lake’s ecology. I personally hear a researcher speculate that warming lake temperatures could spur the growth of algae, reducing the water’s clarity.

That would be very unfortunate because Crater Lake is still considered to be one of the clearest and purest bodies of water in the world. In fact, its water is cleaner than the tap water in your home. This is because roughly 83% of it comes from rain and snow falling directly on the lake’s surface, while the rest is runoff from precipitation on the caldera’s inner slopes. No rivers or creeks carry silt, sediment, or pollution into the lake.

3. Climate change puts pikas in peril.

Photo by Beth Pratt-Bergstrom,
California Director at National Wildlife Federation

The American pika (Ochotona princeps) is a small mammal that inhabits rocky slopes from Canada to New Mexico. At Crater Lake, pikas are often seen harvesting wildflowers along the Garfield Peak Trail, which starts by the historic Crater Lake Lodge in Rim Village.

Rising temperatures appear to be driving some pika populations extinct. Pikas are not able to tolerate warm weather; their dense fur is not efficient at releasing heat. A few hours in the sun at temperatures as low as 78 degrees Fahrenheit (26 degrees Celsius) can be fatal. Climate change also may be altering vegetation patterns and shrinking the food supply of some populations.

Many pika populations live high up on isolated peaks. While other mammals might be able to migrate in response to climate change, most pikas cannot. At least three Oregon pika communities southeast of Crater Lake have vanished in recent decades.

4. Climate change threatens whitebark pines 

Whitebark pines (Pinus albicaulis) grow on the rocky rim of Crater Lake and atop the park’s tallest peaks. They are considered a “keystone” species, since so many other species depend on them for food, shelter, and survival. Unfortunately, half the park’s whitebark pines are currently dead or dying.

Tiny mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae), rarely seen, is responsible for much of the damage. Scientists think, however, that the real culprit may be climate change. For millennia, mountain pine beetles have thrived in the forests of western North America. In the past, however, their intolerance of cold weather generally safeguarded high-elevation trees. Lower elevation trees, such as lodgepole pines and ponderosa pines, were the beetles’ main targets.

Recently, however, the beetles have turned their attention to whitebark pines. Our warming climate is helping these insects survive the winter at higher latitudes and elevations.
My Personal Observation of Climate Change

My first time seeing Crater Lake with my own eyes was May 20, 1992, just 3 days after my college graduation ceremony from William Jewell College, in Liberty, MO. I was amazed how much snow there was on the ground, about 5 to 6 feet, when I arrived to work there for the first time. I love cold weather and seeing snow falling. Because of the high elevation, it was amazing for me to see that snow could fall anytime of year at Crater Lake. This was a welcome relief for me since I grew up hating the very hot and humid summers in my hometown of St. Louis, MO.

At Crater Lake, I always loved seeing snow falling throughout May, the first three weeks of June, and in the autumn months of September and October. However, I am now noticing that it is raining more and snowing less in May, June, September, and October.

The summer of 2013, the total winter snow pack was only 354 inches, only 67% of average accumulation. Because of the low snow fall, the park held emergency staff meetings in May and June to inform us of water conservation and restriction measures.
The summer of 2014 was even worse: the total winter snow pack was 257 inches, less than 50% of average. By 2014, I have been able to document the changes with my own eyes.

One of the advantages for me of working in the same park so many years was that I was able to arrive early in the summer season, typically around the beginning or mid May. Even more, I was assigned to the same park housing unit for the past three years in a row.

On June 9, 2012 and May 5, 2014, I took two pictures from the exact same location from my living room window. The winter of 2011-12 was consider to be closer to an average winter, with close to 400 total inches of accumulated snow. Most of the snow came late in the winter season, so the depth on the ground looked typical for June 9th with 3.5 feet on the ground.

However, when I arrived at Crater Lake on May 5, 2014, there was only about 3.5 feet of snow on the  ground. I was shocked at how little snow I saw. It was half of the normal snow depth 7 to 8 feet of snow that I had seen in past years around this time. It felt like I had arrived at Crater Lake in June, not May!

No, three years do not make a trend. It may not seem like much a difference to many people, but I see with my own eyes a downward trend of the snow at Crater Lake.
The Winter of 2014-2015 continues to show this downward trend of snow for Crater Lake
The winter of 2014-15 seems to continue to show this downward trend of snow. The current depth of snow on the ground at Crater Lake National Park headquarters is 32 inches as of February 22, 2015. The average snow depth for February 22rd is 109 inches, only 29% of average.
The total accumulation so far this winter since October 1, 2014 is 135 inches. The average total accumulation by this date 344 inches, about 39% of average.
Brian Kahn
Image Source: Climatecentral.org

For the second winter in a row, Crater Lake is not alone in the western United States for extremely low snow accumulation. According to Brian Kahn, science writer for Climatecentral.org, California Ski resorts such as Mt. Shasta Ski Park, Badger Pass and Mt. High are closed until the next storm dumps enough snow for skiing. Kahn then writes that “the snow drought extends north into Oregon and Washington. In the Olympic Peninsula located west of Seattle, only 3 percent of its average snow-water equivalent has fallen this winter — an important snow metric for water managers.”

In the meantime the winter of 2014-15 has hammered New England with twice their average snowfall to date. Ironically, Brian Kahn, a native of Boston, MA, a friend, and a former ranger colleague at Crater Lake from 2006 to 2010, then writes “Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon, normally one of the snowiest places in the nation, with less snow on the ground than Boston according to Kathie Dello, deputy director of the Oregon Climate Service.”

 

Using Hope and Humor to Educate Park Visitors about Climate Change
 
Since August 2011, my evening campfire program at Crater Lake National Park is about the impact of climate change at Crater Lake National Park. It is vital when communicating about climate change, whether as park ranger or a private citizen, that we provide people with a sense of hope.
In 2010, a published paper, Apocalypse soon? Dire messages reduce belief in global warming by contradicting just-world beliefs by Rob Willer and Matthew Feiberg of the Psychology Department and Sociology Department of the University of California, Berkeley, discovered “Fear-based appeals, especially when not coupled with a clear solution, can backfire and undermine the intended effects of messages.”
Thus, I built my climate change evening program around a message of comedy about myself, serious education how climate change is impacting Crater Lake, hope how Crater Lake National Park is striving to reduce its carbon emissions, and a concrete action for how my audience can get involved.

I show my audience that Crater Lake is doing what it can to reduce its carbon emissions with trolley tours, hybrid and electric staff vehicles, and solar panels installed by our Mazama Camper store and our North Entrance station. I acknowledge that is not nearly enough for Crater Lake to seriously reduce our carbon emissions. Thus, I challenge my audience to get involved.

The title of this talk is The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, just like the old Clint Eastwood spaghetti western of the same title. At my conclusion, I ask my audience to stop by our visitor centers and fill out comment forms. I request that they demand that Crater Lake National Park should do more to reduce the impact of climate change. Hold our feet to the fire. Be as tough on us as Clint Eastwood would be in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. 
 
Seeing the negative impacts of climate change at Crater Lake and Everglades National Parks over the past 22 years is not fun.
Brian Ettling
Presenting at Grand Canyon National Park
May, 2013

On the other hand, seeing the hundreds of park visitors positively respond to my climate change evening program has wonderful experience for me. Since presenting this talk numerous times since 2011, I had a paper published about my talk in Yale Climate Connections in April, 2012. I was invited to give this talk as a guest speaker at Grand Canyon National Park in May, 2013. National Journal writer Claire Foran wrote an article about my efforts communicating with park visitors about climate change in the December 2014, Next Time You Visit a National Park, You Might Get a Lecture on Climate Change.

Of all the audiences I am most proud reaching though is my own father, LeRoy Ettling. My Dad loves listening to Rush Limbaugh and occasionally watching Fox News.  When I first became concerned about climate change about 10 years ago, my Dad did not accept climate change. He totally dismissed it saying that ‘the earth goes through natural cycles.
However about three years ago, my dad changed his mind about climate change and accepted the science. I recently asked him (in a soon to be released video) What caused you to change your mind?His response: “You did! You showed me graphs that indicate the snow pack had diminished and rainfall had increased at Crater Lake National Park over the past 70 years.”

I then asked him: “So it was my visual evidence and personal story of that convinced you?”
My Dad: “It sure was.”

 

 

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