National Park Service


Date of this Version



Published in Weber, Samantha, and David Harmon, eds. 2008. Rethinking Protected Areas in a Changing World: Proceedings of the 2007 GWS Biennial Conference on Parks, Protected Areas, and Cultural Sites. Hancock, Michigan: The George Wright Society.


Paleontology, the study of organisms and processes preserved in a geologic context, can be practiced in over 180 units of the national park system. Much more than just the collecting of different kinds of fossils to be stored in a museum, the study of the fossil record is the only means by which we can understand past climatic changes and the effects of such changes on biotas (changes such as extinction, speciation, immigration, and evolutionary events). In combination with the fossil record, comprehensive studies of geological, sedimentological, and geochemical records can inform us about other aspects of major climatic perturbations in earth history, such as the causation of climatic shifts, including tectonic events (i.e., mountain-building, plate collisions, and continental movements), greenhouse gas events, and a myriad of other natural processes occurring on geologic timescales. There is now incontrovertible evidence that CO2 concentrations are at the highest level in the last 650 thousand years (ky) (Petit et al. 1999; IPCC 2007). Environmental impacts associated with rising levels of elevated CO2 are being recorded nearly everywhere on earth. Sea and land temperatures are rising rapidly, sea level is increasing, plant and animal ranges are shifting to higher latitudes and higher elevations, acidification of the oceans is occurring, global ice-volume is decreasing, and rates of extinction are unprecedented (IPCC 2007).