National Fossil Day   Explore Nature
National Park Service
US Department of the Interior

Fossil Fuels and Climate Change

Sea level rise affects cultural resources.
The national park service is reducing our fleet of gasoline-powered vehicles and is switching to hybrid or electric-powered vehicles. Photo by NPS.
Our modern society relies heavily on fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas. Coal consists of hardened, organic remains of prehistoric plants and animals that lived in swamps and wetlands. Oil products such as gasoline are refined from liquid organic material that also started as prehistoric plants and animals. It takes millions of years of decay under heat and pressure to form these "fossil fuels." When coal, oil, and natural gas are burned, the energy stored by plants from the sun is released.

Burning fossil fuels also releases greenhouse gases, which trap additional heat in the atmosphere, causing changes in climate. Throughout Earth´s history, changes in climate have occurred as a result of natural processes. Today, Earth’s climate is warming. The warming is very likely human-caused (not natural). Fossils provide a record of how organisms responded to past climate changes. When climate changed outside of their "comfort zone," plants and animals moved to areas with more favorable climate, adapted to the changes, or went extinct.

All living things—including humans—will face these same options with modern climate change: adjust where they live, adapt to the changes, mitigate those changes, or face extinction. There are many ways for YOU to take action to help reduce our impact on climate. For more information about how national parks are responding to climate change and what YOU can do to help, see

Further learning: To see evidence of past climate change, go to a park or museum near you and investigate what fossil plants and animals lived in the area. Can you determine what environment those plants and animals lived in? Compare that environment to what you see outside today. How has the landscape changed? Do the same plants and animals live there today?

Last updated: May 20, 2010