Why this matters
On competitive courses, in National Parks, and in our backyards, climate change is forcing both pro and everyday athletes to reconsider their participation in outdoor sports, as well as how to adapt to changing conditions.
The car screamed by me, a few feet to my left as I cranked the pedals on my bike. Then a truck, then another car, then more. My friends, much more experienced and faster riders than I, disappeared down the highway ahead of me.
Alone and afraid, I hugged the shoulder. Each passing car inched me closer to the woods that lined the road. What I hoped would be a stress-free – if physically demanding – 250-mile ride on a gravel path called the Katy Trail had taken a nasty detour because a Missouri River flood had made a chunk of the trail impassable.
This wasn’t the first time severe weather waylaid one of my outdoor excursions. Once, while jogging, I nearly passed out from heat exhaustion. I’ve also rushed with my kids to find shelter as a nasty thunderstorm hit a campground and braced myself on a mountaintop against winds gusting up to 70 mph.
These days, I find myself wondering: What if experiences like these become the norm?
Bad weather caused by climate change is already hitting the world of traditional competitive sports. Torrential rain muddies playing fields. Endless droughts dry them out. Games and practices are being moved indoors, played in evenings, or canceled entirely due to heat. Enduring high temperatures was once seen as a measure of toughness; now, avoiding those conditions is a matter of basic physical safety.
Beyond tennis courts and football fields, however, lies the even wider world of outdoor recreational sports. These are the kind of activities and adventures in which it’s just you versus Mother Nature – and, boy, does she seem pissed off lately. Virtually all experts predict that as carbon emissions continue to warm the planet, we can expect more rain in some places, more drought in others, and more heat and extreme weather pretty much everywhere. So, what will that mean for the accessibility of the Great Outdoors?
‘It’s Not All One Thing’
During the pandemic, participation in outdoor sports and activities exploded. Instead of gaping at the beautiful vistas that serve as our screensavers, we are venturing out into them. In 2020, 8.1 million more people went hiking than in 2019. Campgrounds saw an increase of 7.9 million visitors. Sales of e-bikes jumped by 135 percent.
Close to where I live, the suburban St. Louis greenway system saw a 50 percent increase from 2019 to 2020. Usage of the Katy Trail – the path I referenced above – jumped by 47 percent.
Today, those massive increases have tapered off. But participation is still far ahead of where it was in 2019. And at the same time interest in the Great Outdoors is surging, so too is concern for what we are doing to it. If you read anything about climate change – Heat! Droughts! Floods! Fires! Bugs! – it’s easy to conclude that we are making our world inhospitable for adventuring.
The truth is more complicated. Much of the news is dire. But not all of it. In some ways, climate change could be beneficial for outdoors enthusiasts. Based strictly on weather, we will have more opportunities to go outside. Peak seasons will be longer, shoulder seasons will be longer, and offseasons will be shorter. All of this is according to the National Park Service, which in 2015 conducted a comprehensive study looking at park attendance and weather from 1979 to 2013. Using that data to extrapolate attendance under various climate change scenarios, the study concluded that attendance at national parks could increase by as much as 23 percent by 2060.
But warmer weather isn’t all good. Consider fishing. The number of nice days for casting lures will increase – but if the water gets too warm, the number of fish will dwindle. “If the seasons are longer in a place, and there are more opportunities for people to get out there and enjoy their natural and cultural heritage, of course, that’s fantastic,” says Nicholas Fisichelli, the study’s lead author and president and CEO of the Schoodic Institute, Acadia National Park’s partner in science and education. “But the climate is one of the fundamental underpinnings of any ecosystem, and so that changing means that those systems themselves are changing.”
Change gives, and change takes away. More people visiting our parks is great news – until too many people do so. Another study found that increased state park attendance related to climate change could contribute to overcrowding, staff shortages, and budget problems.
The 2015 NPS study said the increase in hot days that make outdoor adventure untenable would be offset by an increase in nice days. But a separate study based on 14 years of geotagged social media posts came to the opposite conclusion, predicting a decrease in warm-weather outdoor participation because of an increase in heat.
Winter will start later, end earlier, and be milder in between. One climate change study said this: “By mid-century, the average Midwesterner will likely experience 16 to 37 fewer days below freezing each year.” That’s bad news for outdoor ice skating and hockey and also for ice fishing and other cold-weather outdoor activities that can’t fall back on artificial snow like a ski resort. In some areas, snowmobiling could drop by as much as 80 percent by 2090, according to the Journal of Outdoor Tourism and Recreation.
Alaska is warming faster than any other state. The Iditarod, the famous 1,000-mile dog sledding race across the state, has had to change its course routinely in recent years because of poor conditions related to increasingly warmer winters.
“It’s not all one thing,” Fisichelli says. “That’s what makes it so fascinating. It’s complicated. It’s complicated to communicate. It doesn’t fit easily into sound bites. There is good and bad depending on whose perspective it is.”
Adaptation and Mitigation
Many climate change studies look decades into the future, and, so far, I’ve been writing this story as if climate change is something that will happen between now and then. But the truth is it’s also happening right now. Depending on where you are, it’s already warmer, rainier, dryer, buggier, and/or more extreme than it used to be.
That will keep on keeping on. Day by day, week by week, year by year, we are altering the outdoors. The places you go are no longer the places you used to go; the times you go are different, too. Leaves turn colors later, flowers bloom earlier, animals migrate sooner. Entire species are moving 10 miles north every 10 years.
For most of its existence, the National Park Service has tried to keep its facilities the same today as they were yesterday, all so they’ll be the same tomorrow. That has become largely impossible. Today, the service focuses on adaptation and mitigation, attempting to prepare its parks for an array of climate change outcomes so that they remain accessible. At Everglades National Park in Florida, that means dealing with too much water. At Big Bend National Park in Texas, that means dealing with too little water. In Glacier National Park in Montana, that means moving bull trout to cooler water.
Similar efforts are happening at the local level. In suburban St. Louis, heat and flooding are major concerns. Humidity already routinely pushes the heat index to triple digits. This is going to get worse, maybe much worse. In the past 30 years, St. Louis averaged eight days topping 95 degrees Fahrenheit (without heat index). According to one dire prediction, that number could jump to as high as 126 days by the end of the century – making St. Louis statistically similar to Phoenix, a city located in a desert.
Helping people deal with the heat is top of mind for officials at the Great Rivers Greenway, a network of 120-plus miles of trails in the St. Louis region. Emma Klues, vice president of communications and outreach, says GRG strategically places shade, drinking water, and rest rooms along the trails, though that effort is complicated by the web of governmental agencies involved and the lack of running water at some parks.
Klues and I recently went for a bike ride on the Deer Creek Greenway trail. She pulled to a stop and inched her bike off the pavement toward a slope running down to a creek. Behind her, 60 feet from the water, debris from a flood a few weeks earlier lined the bench next to a softball field.
The creek’s banks were piled with rocks in one section and dotted with cuttings from willows in another. Both are part of mitigation efforts to stem flood damage. There’s no way they could have actually stopped the flood – as much as 12 inches of rain fell on the region overnight, blasting the previous record of seven inches – but they helped. “Nature’s going to nature,” Klues said. “What we can do is try to mitigate the dangerous impacts.”
The GRG staff doesn’t just prepare trails to accommodate people in the case of bad weather. It also lets users know when the weather is good. On nice days – when temperatures are 55 to 80 degrees – the GRG staff will increase the ads for the trails that pop up in Google feeds across the region.
How Hot Is Too Hot?
I spent Labor Day weekend at a secluded cabin with family and friends. We’ve made this trip several times, and I’ve never come home with so much as a mosquito bite. This time, I tried to count my chigger bites and stopped at 50, with a couple dozen uncounted.
This brings me to the core tension outdoor adventurers face amid climate change:
How hot is too hot?
How dry is too dry?
How rainy is too rainy?
How buggy is too buggy?
These are questions that can be definitively answered only by each of us, one decision to go out or stay in at a time. Still, researchers have uncovered some clues about how climate change will change our behavior in the aggregate. The NPS study said attendance starts to drop when the average monthly temperature reaches 80 degrees – not the daily high, the average. But that is not universal. The GRG cancels events when the heat index reaches 105. A study of national parks in Utah found Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks did not see a heat-related drop in attendance, likely because those parks have natural features such as canyons and water that mitigate heat.
Of course, it’s not just favorable natural features that determine how a person responds to unfavorable conditions. Our attitudes toward a particular location matter, too: According to fascinating research into our outdoor behavior (among other topics), the deeper our commitment to a place, the more we are willing to endure in order to enjoy it. If I had gone alone to that secluded cabin and/or had never been there before, and then came home with 50-plus chigger bites – well, I’d never go back. But assuming the same people were there, I would return today, even knowing about the chiggers.
Scientists call this place attachment, and it will play a role in how climate change affects our outdoor lives. In general, a hotter Earth means more rain; also in general, more rain means more insects. In a study of Vermont State Parks, Bess Perry, Assistant Professor of Protected Areas and Natural Resources Recreation Management at Michigan State, found that visitors’ behavior changed more dramatically due to increases in rain and biting insects than temperature increases.
“There are breaking points,” says Perry. “The climate can tap into conditions where no matter how much you love a place, you are going to pick either a different time to go there or you’re going to seek a similar experience at another place.”
Previous visits and proximity to a location also factor into place attachment. I suspect aura plays a role as well. Are some places – the Rockies, the Great Wall of China, the Sahara – simply so amazing that they’re essentially impervious to climate change, so dazzling that we’ll keep going there no matter how bad things get?
There’s a fine line between loving a place and loving it so much that it clouds your judgment. In her study, Perry wrote that high levels of place attachment can encourage people to disregard unsafe conditions. Take the Grand Canyon. The heat there is often brutal, even dangerous. This is only going to get worse. Nevertheless, the NPS study predicted that the Grand Canyon could see a 22 percent spike in attendance as temperatures rise.
“We don’t have another Grand Canyon, right? Whatever the conditions are, I want to see the Grand Canyon,” says Perry. “I still want to get that picture. I still want to have that in my heart for the rest of my life.”
Walking (and Hiking) the Line
The Appalachian Trail is a 2,190-mile ribbon that runs from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine. My own interest in the outdoors went from mild to passionate after a two-day, one-night hike along the North Carolina-Tennessee border with three friends 11 years ago.
But the trail wasn’t a trail during one of those days. It was a creek. Rain fell in such unrelenting sheets that water poured down the path. The only way to walk and not step into ankle deep water was to straddle the sides. Rain soaked my clothes and everything in my backpack. There was no way to start a fire to warm myself up. It was fall in the mountains, and the dropping temperature made me worry I’d suffer hypothermia if I slept outside in a tent.
By luck, our hike took us by an abandoned barn converted to a shelter. We slept inside with a couple dozen others escaping the cold. Because things ended well, it’s a fond memory. Take away that barn, however, and I might never have hiked again. The past 11 years of my life would have been completely different.
For those of us who love the outdoors, climate change is forcing us to confront the fact that our environment is powerful and that we are at its mercy whenever we engage with it. In some ways, that tension is why we venture forth. It’s the thing we get outside that we can’t get at home.
As the world warms, I buy better gear. I look more closely at weather forecasts. I think more deeply about where and when to go and who to go with. But, so far, nothing I’ve experienced has led me to hang up my hiking boots or put away my bike. I keep at it – because the struggle against the conditions is essential to the experience. No great story ever starts this way: Remember that time everything went perfect? Imperfections and challenges force me to grow. And knowing that, I almost want it to be bad out there.
Bad, that is, up to a point. Where is that point? I don’t know, and I hope I never find it.
The physical and social benefits of athletic competition are clear, but across the globe, many are still unable to enjoy them.
Can sport evolve to be more inclusive and adapt to the bodies, minds and circumstances of everyone who wants to play?