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Does Drought and Climate Change Impact Outdoor Tourism?

January 2, 2023
Does Drought and Climate Change Impact Outdoor Tourism

Climate change and drought has the potential to impact outdoor tourism around the world by making it harder to access certain popular outdoor recreation sites, participate in particular outdoor recreation activities and industries, and sustain wildlife and natural forestry and lands preferred by those who participate in outdoor recreation and outdoor tourism. Climate change and drought impact the availability of outdoor recreation activities, the beauty of nature, the wildlife visitors see, and the state of commercial and public lands, including parks, that residents and visitors use. 

The Effects of Drought on Outdoor Recreation and the Wilderness

Beginning in 2017, the United States Forestry Service has been evaluating and acknowledging the effect of drought on outdoor recreation and wilderness. In the United States, recreational opportunities on public lands are among the most valued by the public and tourists alike. National Parks see more than 148 million visitors each year, as people seek refuge, relaxation, exercise, and time with friends and family in the great outdoors. Drought conditions present challenges to managing and providing quality outdoor recreation activities on national forests and grasslands, by affecting the ecosystem functions that drive continued demand for recreation. The direct effects of drought are a reduction of snowpack and runoff, lower stream flow, low water levels, and fewer wildlife. Indirect effects include changes in vegetation, wildlife habitats, fires, insect outbreaks, and unique features of the public lands like glaciers, hot springs, and waterfalls. 

Projected Effect of Drought on Warm Weather Recreation Activities

Warm weather recreation includes outdoor activities like biking, hiking, camping, backpacking, fishing, and visiting wilderness areas. Drought is already affecting these activities; for instance, in the Rocky Mountains, snowmelt and spring runoff have started occurring earlier in the season because of warmer spring temperatures and a greater solar absorption. This shift may change visitors’ preferences with regards to sites they visit and activities they participate in. There may be an increase in demand for warm weather activities as seasons shift and site characteristics change. The warmer, drier weather patterns at lower elevations may lead to increased activity from visitors at higher elevations. The use restrictions on roads and trails may also change availability of access in drier and warmer seasons. 

Projected Effect of Drought on Snow-Based Winter Recreation Activities

Drought will also have an increasing effect on snow-based winter recreation activities. This includes activities like skiing, snowmobiling, and snowshoeing. Climate predictions indicate that there will be a decrease in snowpack and viable snow sports seasons, particularly at lower and mid elevations. A projected snow drought will negatively impact skiing and snowmobiling and may contribute to shorter recreation seasons. There might be a shift in activities to a higher elevation, decreased recreation use in snow-dominated areas in early and late winter, and earlier snowmelt in spring. Ski seasons will be more variable, and greater temperature variability will increase avalanche danger and rain on snow events. Small resorts may not have enough resources to use improved snowmaking technologies and will experience the greatest economic impact. Trail-based activities like snowmobiling and cross-country skiing may be affected by the snow base and have a shorter season or occur at higher elevations. There may also be increased damage to trails and vehicles due to insufficient snow depth. 

Effect of Drought and Climate Change of Wildlife-Related Outdoor Recreation

Hunting, fishing, and wildlife viewing will also be impacted by drought and climate change. As drought increases, hunting and fishing patterns may change, and there may be a dearth of available fish and wildlife to catch or hunt. It is projected that there will be a reduction in cold water fish species due to warmer stream temperatures, a decline in summer flow, and a retreat of suitable habitat. Warm water fish may experience the opposite effect with more recreational opportunities for brook and rainbow trout and smallmouth bass fishing. Drought will also affect hunting game like elk, whitetail, and mule deer due to the availability and distribution of foliage. There may be increased river closures due to high temperatures and low stream flows. There may also be decreased diversity and abundance of fish and decreased opportunities for cold water angling. Hunting seasons may become shorter and less desirable due to less or no snow. 

How Climate Change is Affecting the State of Outdoor Recreation

As the climate warms and the levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere increase, temperatures across the world are rising. In the last decade we’ve recorded the highest annual temperatures in the United States, and natural disasters like hurricanes are made worse by climate change conditions. As extreme drought affects some of the country, severe storms and flooding affect others. These climate changes raise important questions for administrators and owners of outdoor recreation businesses. Climate change has already affected the way we plan, design, and manage parks and public lands across the country and likely around the world. Recreation opportunities in urban areas have already become more limited, and rising temperatures in parts of the country make people less likely to participate in physical outdoor activities like walking, trail running, and cycling. Some activities, like water- and snow-based recreation, may end up disappearing altogether in certain regions of the country. 

Climate Change Effects on Commercial and Public Recreation Activities

Every type of outdoor activity is affected by climate change, from skiing to boating to hiking. Certain activities, like whitewater rafting, kayaking, and other water-related outdoor activities, are already facing disruption due to changing water levels and damage due to storms and flooding. There is much more variability and less reliability in both the weather and the seasons. While snow sports might be most affected by climate change, we will soon see an impact in all outdoor activities at all levels in all regions. There has already been significant change to the way people recreate and also how they do business. Manufacturers that create products for outdoor recreation are already having to make adaptations due to changing temperatures, as well as the environmental impact that their manufacturing, distribution, and shipping processes have. 

Changes to Local Parks Due to Climate Change

Local parks are also affected by climate change. At the local and regional level, parks might see more changes than commercial recreation sites. Unpredictable weather might change a park’s maintenance schedules and even affect their ability to hire and retain maintenance employees. Fields may not be ready to use, equipment may not yet be evaluated and repaired, and surfaces may not be safe to run or recreate on after extreme temperature fluctuations throughout the year. Extreme heat may make visitors less likely to use public parks, and parks may need to make costly adjustments that allow them to stay open later into the evening when it is cooler outside. It is also harder and more costly to maintain grass, trees, and other landscaping in public parks, and more and more are turning to artificial turf for their sports fields. 

The Effects of Climate Change on Health and Social Equity

Climate change also significantly affects health and social equity, making outdoor recreation in some parts of the country hazardous to its citizens' health. Poor air quality, damage to equipment and streets due to flooding and storms, and improper maintenance of parks and other facilities may make using them dangerous or unsafe. Equipment may become too hot to the touch to use, and there may not be enough shade structures throughout the park to invite use during hot days or inclement weather periods. 

Learn More About the Environmental and Economic Factors that Affect Outdoor Recreation

If you’re interested in learning more about the environmental and economic factors that affect the outdoor recreation industry, stay up to date with our blog at Advanced Outdoor Solutions. At Advanced Outdoor Solutions, we do that work for you by researching, analyzing, and presenting the latest trends and data in outdoor activities. 

We also offer those in the industry land planning, design, development, and turnkey third-party management solutions throughout Delaware, DC, and SW Florida. To learn more about these services, contact us today at 1-800-579-9796 or contact us online.