Projecting Climate Change Effects on Outdoor Recreation

Climate change effects on swimming differed by region. Participation is projected to decrease in the North and South but increase in the Rocky Mountain region. Photo by Adrianna Calvo, via Pexels.

Cool temperatures enjoyed by hikers might rise enough that people decide to stay inside instead. The culprit – climate change – will cause higher temperatures and uneven intensification of both drought and rainfall. As a result, outdoor recreation trends could change markedly.

A study by University of Georgia postdoctoral research associate Ashley Askew and USDA Forest Service social scientist J. Michael Bowker examined this relationship. The study looked at how climate change could impact outdoor recreation participation. Their findings were published in The Journal of Park and Recreation Administration.

First, the scientists created models of adult participation rates in 17 outdoor recreation activities, such as day hiking, fishing, horseback riding on trails, motorized water activities, birding, and swimming. They based the models on past national and regional data, with the expectation that they could simulate future rates.

They combined these recreation models with explanatory variable projections. Explanatory variables are the main factors that explain participation in outdoor recreation. These variables included income, temperature, and precipitation, among others.

“We included socioeconomic variables to explain participation in given activities, in addition to some variables related to supply or availability,” says Bowkers. “For example, greater access to water in Florida would positively correlate with motorboating, while lesser access in North Dakota would be correlated with lower participation. In that context, a primary variable determining participation in motorboating would be access to water.”

“We looked at incorporating past climate data into our model to see whether or not differences in climate explained participation in a given activity,” adds Bowker.

The results project future changes in participation for those 17 outdoor activities, nationally and by region. Changes were measured as the difference between the projected 2060 rates with climate change and the 2060 rates without, using 2008 rates as a baseline.

Downhill skiing nets economic benefits of $91 to $185 per person, per trip. This is based on opportunity cost approximations, or the most monetarily favorable option individuals could spend their time on rather than skiing. Image by PhotoMIX Ltd., via Pexels.

Nationally, winter activities were most negatively affected by climate change: snowmobiling, cross country skiing, and snowshoeing. Hotter temperatures were the main reason for the projected decreases in participation. Water activities – such as fishing, whitewater activities, and motorized water activities – are also expected to have lower rates of participation.

The researchers also examined the model projections for different regions in the U.S.: the North, South, Pacific Coast, and Rocky Mountain regions. In the South, day hiking, swimming, and fishing had the greatest decreases, while motorized water sports and birding had the greatest increases.

The changes can be traced primarily to higher temperatures and greater variability in precipitation amount and timing. Greater evapotranspiration, which refers to water being evaporated from the environment as well as being transpired by plants, contributes to humidity and is also a factor. All are part of climate change.

Bowker worked on another study with a different team to examine climate change effects on the recreation economy. The researchers projected changes in the demand and value of downhill skiing and snowboarding on U.S. national forest lands. This study was also published in The Journal of Park and Recreation Administration.

Annually, 23 million people downhill ski in national forests, with an economic value of $2.16 to $4.39 billion per year.  The scientists projected a potential decrease from climate change between $111 million and $374 million annually by 2060.

Though the 2060 projections are long-term, managers can use them to glimpse at the future and prepare for changes in recreation participation.

Read the full text of the outdoor recreation and climate change article.

Read the full text of the downhill skiing and snowboarding article.

For more information, email J. Michael Bowker at

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