Looking ahead 

The National Park Service just celebrated its 100th birthday. Climate change scientist Patrick Gonzalez is here to make sure that's just the beginning.

The first unmistakable sign of climate change Patrick Gonzalez ever saw in the field was in Senegal. It was a dead tree—Prosopis Africana or, as the locals call it, yir—normally a midsize tree with tiny bluish-green leaves and wood so dense that Wolof villagers use it to hold up the walls of their huts, passing the poles down through the generations. But this yir was nothing but a gray naked trunk, and Gonzalez knew that climate change had killed it.

Five years earlier, when he first came to Senegal as a Peace Corps forestry volunteer in 1988, village elders told him that many local trees were dying off—including yir, mango, cashew and jujube, whose berries are full of vitamin C. Their loss contributed to the people's obvious malnutrition—toddlers with hair of a dull reddish hue instead of shiny black, tragically skinny adults. Women were forced to walk much farther to gather firewood.

Gonzalez helped them revive forgotten traditional methods and re-grow some of their native trees. But he was also determined to figure out what was causing so many trees to die. So he returned to Senegal in the early 1990s and walked to 135 villages to count and measure trees and interview village elders. He wore out six pairs of tennis shoes walking nearly 1,200 miles—and earned his doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley as a forest ecologist, and his stripes as a climate change scientist.

click to enlarge COVER PHOTO BY AL GOLUB
  • cover photo by Al Golub

His data showed that, since 1945, one out of three tree species in Senegal had disappeared, and one out of every five big trees had died. Over 50 years, tropical woodlands had shifted 15 to 18 miles toward the equator, giving way to grasslands. "Only a substantial change in climate can cause that," says Gonzalez. The primary tree-killing factors were higher temperatures and lower rainfall, caused by global increases in greenhouse gases. He had unraveled the mystery of the dying trees of Senegal and documented one of the earliest cases of climate change altering the fundamental ecology of a region, causing a biome shift.

"So here we have our pollution causing climate change, causing drought, killing trees and hurting people's livelihoods half a world away," he says. "And it's the thought of these people and the hardships of their lives that really drove me."

A quarter-century later, Gonzalez is focusing his considerable passion for deciphering how climate change is altering the natural world on some of America's most cherished landscapes: the national parks. It's melting glaciers, hastening snowmelt, intensifying wildfires, warming streams and pushing animals and plants out of their usual locations. In coming decades, climate change will magnify these impacts. To what degree depends on whether and how much people rein in greenhouse gas emissions.

As in Senegal, Gonzalez's mission is twofold: He's leading a massive effort to analyze and describe climate change impacts in every park and across the whole system, and with colleagues inside and outside the agency he's pioneering ways to use that science to preserve the landscapes that first inspired Americans to create national parks. Climate data can help park supervisors make decisions about everything from how to manage wildfires and restore wetlands to how—and whether—to upgrade culverts or move roads.

This new thinking doesn't come easy to a 100-year-old bureaucracy. But the National Park Service acknowledges that, due to climate change, it needs to revolutionize the way it manages the landscapes in its care. The goal, Gonzalez says, is "to go from trying to re-create small pictures of a past to which we cannot return, to national parks that we manage for potential future conditions, so that they remain vibrant through this time of dramatic global change."

The magnitude of that challenge inspired National Park Service Chief Jonathan Jarvis, nearly six years ago, to create the job of principal climate change scientist. He hired Gonzalez, whom he calls a "brilliant" scientist with deep experience. A lead author of three reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Gonzalez shares in the Nobel Peace Prize the group received in 2007. But more importantly, says Jarvis, he's got the heart of a field scientist.

click to enlarge 2-29045955545_177a0a73fc_k.jpg

"Patrick is a field guy," Jarvis says. "He gets it, he understands. He has this sort of deep passion about the outdoors and about trees in particular."

Gonzalez, a trim 51-year-old with short salt-and-pepper hair, regularly walks 10 miles a day. He literally bounces up steep trails in Yosemite, stopping periodically to admire new spring growth on pines or sniff their bark, talking all the while. There's a kind of quiet ferocity to the man, especially when it comes to climate change. An introvert by nature, he acquired the gift of gab from the Wolof villagers, who welcomed him when he showed up unannounced, wanting only his conversation. He owes to them his rare ability to communicate the truth about climate change.

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