A changing climate increases risks to outdoor programs—in ways both subtle and severe
The outdoor education center had students in the field—backpacking, rock climbing, and canoeing in wilderness areas across the American west. When lightning struck a few miles from the organization’s 335-acre high-desert headquarters campus, nestled at the base of a mountain range in southern California, at first, nobody noticed.
But the lightning ignited tinder-dry grasses, and driven by high winds and heat, a forty-foot wall of flame erupted, roaring towards the outdoor education center. The heat from the blaze ignited Joshua trees from 30 meters away, turning them into exploding infernos before the wall of flame even reached the plants.
Firefighters dropped fire retardant on the wildfire, but without effect.
An airplane drops fire retardant over the outdoor education center campus.
Staff had 45 minutes to evacuate. As they drove away, flames were visible racing down a hillside towards the nonprofit’s campus.
The wildfire was visible as outdoor program managers evacuated the center.
Fire truck after fire truck arrived. But the inferno overwhelmed the firefighters, who were forced to shelter in place in their vehicles, while the fire raged around them.
When the smoke cleared, the damage became clear. The organization’s offices, with 35 years of paper records, had been reduced to an 18-inch pile of ash. Blackened file cabinets stood like monuments among the cinders. The staff house, holding the personal possessions of 19 field instructors, burned completely to the ground.
The remains of the outdoor program’s office after the 2006 Sawtooth Complex Fire.
The fire burned 87,000 acres, destroying a hundred buildings and killing one person.
Determining exact causes of a single wildfire is not always possible.
And we can expect more outdoor programs to experience the devastating effects of climate change.
The education center’s outdoor classroom, after the fire.
How Does Climate Change Increase Risks to Outdoor and Experiential Programs?
The global climate crisis poses risks both directly and indirectly to outdoor, experiential, wilderness, travel, and adventure programs.
Direct risks include being caught in a wildfire or flood, or getting sick from a disease linked to climate change.
Indirect risks, such as the cost of rebuilding after a fire, or increases in insurance premiums due to climate risk, pose a threat to the business sustainability of outdoor programs.
The risk of an outdoor program participant falling ill from heat stroke during a record-setting hot day can be relatively easy to see.
The risk to ongoing operations of an outdoor program, brought on by repeated floods, recovery from which slowly depletes an organization’s financial reserves, can be more subtle.
Let’s look examples of how climate change increases both direct and indirect risks to outdoor programs. Some, like flash floods, are dramatic. Others, like unreliable water levels for boat trips, are less obvious. We’ll address the following:
We'll then look towards the future, consider issues of equity, and place climate-related outdoor safety in the context of outdoor program risk management.
Interruption & inconvenience
Wildfires don’t have to burn buildings to be destructive. They interrupt programming and add expense even when they just come near an outdoor program center, by causing disruptive evacuations and closures.
Rainbow Trail Lutheran Camp has evacuated its campers multiple times due to recent nearby fires, one of which closed the camp for five weeks.
Brush fire smoke, Florida USA
And it’s not just flames that cause problems: wildfire smoke alone can be damaging, too.
Increasing wildfires bring increasing smoke, which can lead to respiratory illness, and increase susceptibility to COVID-19. Smoke can also aggravate heart conditions and cause mental health concerns. Children are among those at higher risk.
Poor air quality from wildfire smoke can lead to limiting or cancelling outdoor activities.
On July 18, for instance, the Edmonton YMCA cancelled all outdoor program for its campers, due to hazardous levels of wildfire smoke. The City of Edmonton also closed a number of parks and other outdoor facilities.
Research shows wildfire smoke negatively influences the aesthetics of outdoor experiences, and leads to a statistically significant decrease in campground occupancy.
Outdoor-oriented business in wildfire-prone areas area bracing for serious financial losses from wildfire smoke.
And outdoor program facilities burning to the ground is an increasing risk, too.
In the US state of California alone in the last several years, wildfires have taken a devastating toll on outdoor education programs, incinerating numerous camp and outdoor program facilities.
A partial list: Camp Newman burned in 2017; NatureBridge’s Santa Monica Mountains outdoor education campus closed indefinitely after a 2018 wildfire, and Camp Hess Kramer, Camp Hilltop, and Camp JCA Shalom burned down that year as well. In 2020, Camp Krem, the Sierra Streams Institute headquarters, Camp Skylark Ranch, and Camp Okizu were all destroyed by wildfire.
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, after the 2018 Woolsey Fire
Climate change is making the world hotter. Deadly heat waves are increasing in frequency and intensity. This brings increased risk of heat illness, requiring outdoor programs to adopt new safety procedures. And it can call for expensive changes to facilities as well.
A hiker on a Scout trip died of heat stroke on July 3 on a hiking trail in a large Hong Kong park amid 32 degree C (90 F) heat and high humidity; a Scout leader in the party also had heat stroke but survived. This follows a death in May from a trekker hiking up a mountain in Hong Kong in 36 degree C (97 F) heat, the hottest May day in Hong Kong in decades.
Following a fatality by heat stroke on an outdoor program in Hong Kong, an outdoor adventure nonprofit based in that city created new high-heat protocols. Hikers were encouraged to bring parasols to provide shade while trekking in the heat, and groups were restricted from traveling during mid-day heat.
But it’s not just warmer regions of the world that face dangerous heat: in British Columbia Canada, hundreds died in a June 2021 heat wave. Some died outdoors, unable to adapt to the sudden furnace-like air.
Summer camps have adapted to increased heat by observing for signs of heat-related illness, ensuring good hydration, and emphasizing activities involving water.
Classroom in the water: participants in a summertime outdoor education training course adapt to the heat during class in the Bahamas
And residential outdoor programs have spent heavily to install air conditioning and insulation to make buildings useable in now-hotter summers, increasing functionality but at a significant financial cost.
Flood damage in Erftstadt, Germany this month
Climate change is at least partly to blame for what’s been called a thousand-year flood event. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, called the flooding "a clear indication of climate change."
The floods in Europe were followed this week by deadly flooding in Henan province in central China, which killed dozens and trapped passengers in subway cars as floodwaters rose around them. The floods, attributed to climate change, were caused by “rainfall not seen in 1,000 years.”
While these floods made headlines for inundating homes and cities, outdoor programs are vulnerable to increasing flood risks too.
It’s not always possible to definitively tie a single weather event to climate change. But the science is clear that severe weather events are more likely to occur as a result of global climate change we’re seeing now.
Donald Wuebbles, professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois, notes the influence of climate change: “When we do get rainfall it’s more likely to be a bigger rainfall.”
July floods in Europe damaged urban areas, but outdoor programs are at risk too.
Heavier rainfall can increase flash flood risks with outdoor activities. One person died and five were injured on July 14 when a flash flood on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park in the southwestern USA washed away a campsite where about 30 people on a rafting trip were camped.
Ten teenagers recently drowned from a flash flood in a canyon during a three-day trek in Israel, and four months later, 11 hikers died in another sudden flood in a national park in Italy. In New Zealand, six students and their teacher drowned during an outdoor education program in a canyon flood.
A submerged campground in Roermond, Netherlands makes outdoor activities more difficult.
The July 3, 2021 mudslide in Atami, Japan
On July 3, a giant mudslide swept away more than 130 homes in Atami, Shizuoka prefecture, killing at least 2 people, with 20 missing. Thousands of households lost power.
The incident, which came after record-setting torrential rain in the area, is only one of several recent deadly mudslides in Japan.
Mudslides can close rivers and hiking trails for use, and have inundated outdoor recreation facilities. And as mountain weather becomes more extreme and glaciers retreat, the American Alpine Club has observed increased danger from mudslides due to a changing climate.
Harmful algal blooms
Would you swim in this? Swimming in or breathing water vapor from harmful algal blooms can be dangerous.
Harmful algal blooms hazardous to swimmers and others in or near the water appear to be increasing in frequency and intensity, driven by climate change. Drought can lower lake levels, concentrating agricultural runoff; torrential rainfall can trigger a sudden increase in agricultural nutrients. Both risk factors are brought on by a changing climate.
When the water warms in the summer sun, cyanobacteria absorb the sun’s energy and feed on nitrogen and phosphorus in the water. The bacteria excrete cyanotoxins, which may exacerbate asthma; can damage the nervous system, liver and kidney, and can be fatal. The most dangerous cyanotoxin, microcystin, is toxic enough to be considered a biological weapon by the U.S. Department of Defense.
As a result beaches and entire lakes must be closed. A recent persistent bloom in Florida USA had such significant effects on water-based businesses the governor declared a state of emergency.
Ticks come in many shapes and sizes, and carry a toxin and many diseases.
Ticks can carry dozens of diseases, ranging from Lyme Disease to Kyasanur forest disease and Omsk Hemorrhagic Fever. They can also carry a neurotoxin causing paralysis and death. Tick populations are exploding in certain areas. Climate change disrupts migratory patterns of birds, which are a favored tick host, helping introduce ticks into new areas. Once there, milder winters brought about by climate change help ticks survive and lay eggs.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention bluntly states: climate change increases the number and geographic range of disease-carrying insects and ticks.
Ernst Tinaja in Big Bend National Park, Texas USA
While not as catastrophic as a life-threatening flood, climate change adds logistical complications to planning outdoor trips.
Rivers with predictable water levels enable managers to plan boating activities at safe water flows. And knowing which streams and tinajas (desert water pools) have water is important for ensuring hydration on overnight treks.
But this is changing. Julie Kroll of Camp Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp and Retreat Center in Virginia USA noted that water sources “that used to be reliable in the ’90s are no longer reliable, or no longer exist.” She continued, noting that in addition, “river levels are no longer consistent.”
Fox Island Environmental Education Center, sinking under the waves of a rising sea
A changing climate is leading to rising seas, which can pose a safety hazard—and also literally wipe an outdoor education program off the map.
The Fox Island Environmental Education Center off the coast of Virginia USA closed in 2019, as the island on which it's located is disappearing under the waves of a rising ocean.
More than 90 percent of Fox Island's original 426 acres are now under water. Most of the loss occurred in the last 40 years.
Over those four decades, tens of thousands of children and school teachers had transformative outdoor learning experiences exploring the marshes, walking the beach, and canoeing around the island.
But the rising ocean overwhelmed nearby islands and salt marshes that sheltered the island from rough seas, and canoeing became too dangerous to continue.
The organization's director of education operations said, "You have to check in and ask yourself, 'Are we running a safe program?” He concluded: “The risk was too high to keep bringing kids out."
The last group of children to stay at the outdoor center wrote poignant farewells in the visitor’s log book. They then boarded the boat back to the mainland, leaving Fox Island to disappear under the rising sea.
Health & Disease
The rising temperatures, more extreme weather, rising sea level and increasing CO2 levels of climate change have numerous impacts on human health.
Changes in disease vector ecology lead to more malaria, encephalitis, Lyme disease, hantavirus, West Nile, and other diseases
Increasing allergens increase respiratory allergies and asthma
Water quality impacts increase occurrence of cryptosporidiosis, campylobacter, and, as previously discussed, harmful algal blooms, among other health impacts
Water and food supply impacts increase diarrheal disease
Environmental degradation leads to migration, civil conflict, and mental health impacts
And extreme heat increases cardiovascular failure and, as mentioned above, heat-related illness and fatalities
Here we’ll focus on one facet that may particularly affect outdoor programs: mosquito-borne disease.
A study led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine published in the Lancet shows that climate change is expected to threaten up to 4.7 billion more people with dengue and malaria, dangerous mosquito-borne diseases.
Dengue kills 20,000 people annually; malaria kills more than 400,000 people each year. Unabated climate change could more than double those numbers.
Outdoor programs in warmer areas of the world are vulnerable. Thailand, for example, has a tradition of outdoor education and recreation with both residents and tourists. But like other low- and moderate-income countries in dengue- and malaria-prone areas, its public health infrastructure is relatively unprepared for major outbreaks driven by climate change.
Trip leaders from outdoor programs across southeast Asia prepare for a field safety drill in Chiang Mai, Thailand
But a warming planet will spread mosquitoes carrying dengue and malaria to parts of the world currently too cool for them. Unless climate change is controlled, the mosquito Aedes aegypti--which carries dengue, zika, chikungunya, and yellow fever--is projected to spread farther and farther into the USA.
Climate change is also broadening the range of the Anopheles mosquito, which spreads malaria. And it lengthens the mosquito reproduction and transmission season, further increasing risk.
West Nile virus appeared in North America for the first time in New York, in 1999, after a drought followed by heavy rains. Over 1,600 have died to date. Cases across the US, now reported in 48 states, have been increasing. and research suggests that climate change will increase West Nile cases even further.
Guidance is available from the American Camp Association and public health agencies on reducing risk of infection with West Nile (and other vector-borne diseases), but is not a guarantee of protection.
The National Institutes of Health in the USA notes, "Climate changes and global warming will have catastrophic effects on human, animal and environmental ecosystems. Pathogens, especially tropical disease agents, are expected to emerge and re-emerge in several countries including Europe and North America."
A changing climate leads animals to seek new homes, bringing viruses and humans in closer contact.
Climate change also drives a “catastrophic loss of biodiversity” that destroys ecological controls preventing disease spread.
And climate change can resuscitate long-frozen viruses, as recently occurred with anthrax in Siberian permafrost, an incident which led to the death of one person and thousands of reindeer.
In these and other ways, climate change leads to an increase in pandemics.
While climate change is not held directly responsible for COVID-19, climate change makes future pandemics more likely to occur.
COVID-19 has killed over 4 million people, and taken a terrible social, emotional, health, and economic toll. Those of us who have survived with health and professional options intact are indeed very fortunate.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on outdoor programs, however, has been enormous. Many have shut down; others are barely hanging on. Some radically transformed by offering online programming or other creative alternatives, although sometimes accompanied by the loss of jobs and great financial stress.
Outward Bound Bharat in action, pre-COVID-19. Photo credit: OB Bharat
The outdoor program Outward Bound Bharat, based in India, laid off employees and ceased operating programs in March 2020. Sudhir Moharir, OB Bharat’s Executive Director, projects the school won’t be able to begin programming again until 2022.
A two-year pause in programming deprives people of the opportunity to experience the life-enhancing benefits of high-quality experiential education and outdoor adventurous activities. But it is also an enormous operational and financial blow to any organization.
It’s reasonable that any outdoor program would wish to see the factors that could lead to another prolonged and harmful pandemic be reduced.
Short Term Outlook: Getting Worse
Recent floods, wildfires, and other extreme weather events can appear apocalyptic. Global risk management professionals ask, is this expected to continue? Will it likely get even worse?
The answer, in a word: yes.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that the frequency of severe weather events such as flooding and drought will increase as temperatures continue to rise.