Gonzalez measures a ponderosa pine at Yosemite National Park.
PHOTOS: Al Golub

Climate-Change Science in the National Parks

Patrick Gonzalez

1997 Ph.D. Energy and Resources

When forest ecologist Patrick Gonzalez recently visited his childhood home in northwestern Ohio, the maple saplings he’d helped his father plant around the house when it was new, on what had been a bare lot on the edge of farmland, had grown sky-high. His father had dug the holes and Gonzalez softly tamped down the soil around the thin trunks. Standing under their canopy 20 years later, he reflected that planting these trees with his father, who died when Gonzalez was just 14, had instilled a passion that would last a lifetime and define his career.

“I love trees. I enjoy identifying them, learning their Latin and local names, measuring them, climbing them, protecting them, and, finally, using their wood,” he says. He has done all that and more, conducting research from West Africa to Peru to California, and now as the first-ever climate-change scientist for the National Park Service (NPS).

The National Park Service is integrating climate change science into the master plans of all 397 parks.

NPS created the position two years ago as part of the Obama administration’s climate-change strategy. Gonzalez acts as principal investigator on numerous studies, including a recent one where he synthesized published research to see what it could reveal about the types of ecological changes that have occurred in national parks. The field data he surveyed yielded grave findings: human climate change has shifted plants and animals upslope in Yosemite National Park, raised sea level at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and increased tree mortality in numerous national parks in the western United States.

These analyses yield valuable information on what is changing and why, Gonzalez says. “If urbanization, invasive species, or another familiar problem is the cause, then resource managers know what actions to implement. But if climate change is the cause, that will require something new — adaptation measures for future climate conditions.” In a new effort, the NPS is integrating climate change science into the master plans of all 397 parks.

Gonzalez determines the height of a tree.

Gonzalez is also part of a team analyzing the vulnerability of giant sequoia trees to climate change. Scientists from the NPS, Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and UC Berkeley and Davis — including wildland fire specialist Max Moritz — are identifying areas in Sequoia National Park and across the Sierra Nevada that may be vulnerable to shifting wildfire conditions due to climate change. “We’re working with fire managers to modify their fire plans so that, in the future, they will make burn/no-burn decisions based partly on climate change.”

In another collaboration — with John Battles, a professor of forestry — Gonzalez is helping California fulfill a requirement in the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) to inventory greenhouse gas emissions, like those from forest fires, and the carbon that growing forests remove from the atmosphere. “The National Park Service manages forests with some of the highest carbon densities in the world,” Gonzalez says. “We are quantifying this important ecosystem service.”

The interdisciplinary approach of the Energy and Resources Group (ERG) was the ideal preparation for conducting such real-world science, Gonzalez says. His dissertation chair, John Holdren, cofounder of ERG and currently the science advisor to President Obama, profoundly influenced Gonzalez, teaching him the meaning of scientific rigor. “I remember one of the first times that I sat and presented to John the tabulated results for a joint data analysis. He zoomed into the lengthy table and corrected an error that was small, but important. After that, I learned to triple-check.”

Until this job, Gonzalez’s career had a global focus. He served in the Peace Corps in Senegal, where he became fluent in Wolof, the local language. He later returned as a Fulbright Scholar, completing his dissertation research by hiking 1,900 kilometers to count trees and interview village elders. As a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley Center for Forestry from 2009 to 2010, he published a number of articles from his international research, including a paper showing that climate change had caused a decline in trees and tree species across the African Sahel. He is particularly proud of his work as a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the organization that shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007.

Gonzalez’s professional passions carry over to his private life: he hasn’t owned a car in more than 20 years. He and his wife walk or take public transit, specifically to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impacts. “Billions of small actions generated the problem of climate change, so billions of actions, however small they may be, will help us resolve it.”