Image: Joseph Fox
While we are all used to the idea of climate change having an effect on plant and animal behaviour, the thought of our own actions being affected by the vagaries of our climate is much less familiar. Yet new research based on visitor patterns to America's National Parks suggests that this might just be the case.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina found that peak attendance in US national parks that have experienced climate change is happening earlier, compared to 30 years ago. The study, 'Footprints of climate change in US national park visitation', was co-written by Dr Lauren Buckley, assistant biology professor at the College of Arts and Sciences, and Madison S Foushee, a student at the UNC School of Medicine.
According to the study, which was recently published in the International Journal of Biometeorology, of the nine parks that experienced significant increases in mean spring temperatures since 1979, seven experienced a shift in the timing of peak attendance. For example, peak attendance at Grand Canyon National Park shifted from 4th July in 1979 to 4th June in 2008. Over the same period of time at Mesa Verde National Park, peak attendance changed from 10th July to 1st July. The average shift was four days. These findings stood in stark contrast to the 18 parks that hadn't seen significant temperature changes. Of these only three had exhibited the same kind of attendance shifts.
"While the [US] public continues to debate whether global warming is real, it appears that they are already adjusting their behaviour," Dr Buckley said. "Visiting parks earlier may not be a big deal, but it may serve as a bellwether for more severe human adjustments required to cope with climate change."
Dr Buckley acknowledged that other factors such as population changes, economic trends, park popularity and travel costs influence park visitor numbers. However, she believes that these elements are more likely to have an impact on total annual visits, rather than on the monthly and seasonal scale, as observed in this study.
Buckley continued: "This discovery does complement rapidly accumulating evidence showing how other organisms have had to alter their behaviour in response to climate change... National and state park agencies may need to plan for shifts in when users and tourists visit as well."
Meanwhile, Dr Buckley is also investigating whether climate change is driving alterations in other aspects of human behaviour, from consumption of certain types of seasonal foods to shifts in birth rates. It is an interesting new take on the different ways in which climate change is affecting society. Being based as it is on the kind of small decisions that we all make - and more importantly can recognise - it might be the kind of approach that begins to connect with the wider public.