The Clarno palisades (top) of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (Oregon) preserve 44 million-year-old fossils of the Clarno Nut Beds (bottom), a nearly tropical forest with palm trees and bananas. Differences between modern and fossil ecosystems provides evidence for climate change. Photo by Jason Kenworthy; Clarno Nut Beds mural by Larry Felder for NPS, photographed by Will Landon for NPS.
Visiting a fossil site provides a unique way to experience past climate. At a fossil site you are surrounded by a modern ecosystem that can be very different from the one illustrated by the fossils that lived there millions of years ago. Cenozoic Era fossil parks are particularly good places to study climate change because North America was located pretty much where it is today. Instead of North America going to the tropics, the warm climates of the tropics came to North America! During Paleozoic and early Mesozoic eras, North America was closer to the equator and experienced warm climates.
View plate reconstructions...
When you visit a fossil site, look for clues to the ancient climate. What animals lived there? What plants grew there? Was it a wet or dry climate? Was it tropical? How are those animals and plants different from the ones found there today? Would the plants and animals found there today be able to survive in the ancient ecosystem? Would you be able to survive? What adaptations might you need to survive?
Climate change is an important part of the story of many NPS areas. The fossils of the more than 254 NPS "fossil parks" preserve vast information on ancient climate change spanning hundreds of millions of years. They provide evidence of how animals and plants respond to ecosystem changes like climate change. Facing changing conditions outside of their "comfort zone", animals and plants must migrate to more favorable locations, adapt to the changes, or they will die.
The NPS encourages interpretation of past human interactions with more recent climate change. For example, drought is thought to have played a role in the abandonment of ancestral Puebloan settlements at both Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado) and Chaco Culture National Historical Park (New Mexico). As the brochure Climate Change in National Parks mentions, the NPS administers many areas dedicated to how our nation has responded to major societal challenges from the American Revolution, to the abolition of slavery, to the civil rights movement. Global climate change is a societal challenge that affects not just us as Americans, but all of us as humans.