Climate-Driven Societal Change: How Outdoor Recreation Will Transform as Temperatures Rise

ON 09/16/2021 AT 12:36 AM

As the world grows hotter, the way we enjoy ourselves outdoors is also going to change. A new university study shows how dramatically it might evolve, driving implications for those managing public lands and facilities in the future.

Winter bicyclling

Mountain biking in the snow is one example of an outdoor recreational activity which will likely increase in a much hotter world. Photo: Image by suju-foto from Pixabay

For now at least, summer is a time when people traveled to pools or the beach to cool off, to hills and mountainous areas outside the cities for a hike, and to lakes or rivers to kayak and enjoy whitewater rafting. Winter is a time to ice skate and ski, sometimes in areas close at hand and sometimes miles away but still within commuting distance, at least on weekends.

In a hotter future, all that is about to change.

Projections which had little to do with the climate crisis have projected outdoor recreation during the warmer seasons will go up by 18 percent in the next three decades. Winter outdoor recreation was also expected to increase by 12 percent during the same period.

Both projections were driven by availability of disposable income and the increasing popularity of spending time in the natural world, especially with sustainability of all life becoming a higher priority to many.

While global heating may not change the increased desire in going outdoors in both colder and warmer months, how people spend their time is already beginning to shift, even now. Based on initial study, the climate crisis will also drastically change outdoor recreation patterns in the areas most prone to higher heat and drought in the future.

As just one example of how people will likely adapt to higher temperatures, as winter weather moderates in ski resort regions there is likely to be far less skiing of any kind, whether downhill or cross-country. What will replace it is far more winter hiking and cold weather mountain biking. Making those sports more accessible on public lands will change the nature of parks and hiking trails.

For commercial establishments, they may have to shift their entire business model in order to survive these sorts of changes.

To analyze what is likely to happen as temperatures change, researchers from the S.J. Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University began their analysis by looking at 14 years of accumulated geotagged social media posts about outdoor recreation now. The research team members then identified certain trends in what people were doing and then correlated them with local climate data changes and variables.

The study authors then used the gathered data and, by mapping against climate change trends across the United States, made projections of where the largest changes in outdoor recreational activities would likely happen.

Among the changes they noted were that summer visits to public lands in the southeastern U.S. will most likely decline by over 50 percent by 2050. Despite that temperatures everywhere will go up as global heating increases, the impact on that region is expected to be far more severe than in other parts of the U.S.

In a similar manner, the researchers were able to predict that for exactly the same reason, that temperatures will be far warmer in winter than in tne past, winter outdoor recreation will probably go up far faster in the upper Midwest as well as in Texas and Oklahoma, which will experience less severe winters in the future.

“We’ve known for a while that patterns for outdoor recreation and visitation to public lands are sensitive to temperature,” said lead author Emily Wilkins. “What’s important about this study is that it shows how much variation there is in the impacts of climate change on visitation to public lands across the country—there are substantial differences whether you are talking about outdoor recreation in Oregon or in Florida.” 

As to how to respond to such changes, public lands use managers can plan in advance to make certain types of facilities more available to respond to changing public requirements.

“It’s important for public land managers, like folks who work for the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service, to have a good understanding of what the demand for outdoor recreation will look like in the future,” said Jordan Smith, Director of the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism“With this information, they can make more informed decisions about where to invest time and effort to either build new outdoor recreation infrastructure, like trails and visitors centers, or maintain existing infrastructure.”

Though this study was all about use of public lands, its conclusions do suggest major implications to be considered for other common for-profit outdoor recreation destinations for Americans throughout the year. In the winter, once well-used resort areas which depend on the availability of snow and cold to draw customers will likely suffer major drops in usage as the areas stay warmer for much longer periods of time. Theme parks, a common summer destination, will lose customers as well as the heat becomes too unbearable for families to stay outside for long periods of time. Swimming pools may also prove to be a luxury even for communities to maintain during the summer as well, as increased water scarcity makes keeping the pools filled and clean a far more expensive proposition than in the past.