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Welcome to the post-apocalyptic National Parks

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Seven posters show a grim future if climate change goes unchecked

Ranger Doug / Hannah Rothstein

National parks in the US are already seeing the effects of climate change — glaciers are melting, whitebark pines are under attack by pests, and wildfires are eating away at acres of land across the US. What will happen to our treasured parks by 2050 if we don’t address climate change?

That’s the question at the heart of an art project by Hannah Rothstein, a 31-year-old painter and illustrator living in Berkeley, California. Rothstein reworked historical national park posters to show how our beloved landscapes will look like if the planet continues to warm. There are dying mangroves in the Everglades National Park, starving grizzly bears in Yellowstone, dead redwood trees in Redwood National Park, and algae blooms at Crater Lake National Park.

That might sound like a grim scenario, but Rothstein hopes it will spur people to action. “The first step to creating change is acknowledging that something’s an issue and creating a dialogue around it,” she tells The Verge. “That’s really what these posters are aiming to do.”

Ranger Doug / Hannah Rothstein

Rothstein’s artwork partly focuses on reinventing symbols that are so ubiquitous that they almost become invisible to people, she says. (Her project Who Are Heroes?, for instance, prompts people to place well-known superheroes into the traditionally criminal context of mugshots.) So to highlight the climate change threats national parks are facing, she drew upon well-known historical posters that were commissioned by the Works Projects Administration in the 1930s and 1940s. The WPA, which was part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, put millions of unemployed Americans to work. Among them were artists and photographers who were asked to create posters to lure visitors to the US’s national parks.

From 1935 to 1943, an estimated 1,400 of these posters were printed, according to Popular Mechanics, but only 41 are accounted for today. That’s largely thanks to the tireless work of a former park ranger, nature photographer, and artist named Doug Leen (who goes by Ranger Doug). He spent years tracking down and preserving the original posters; sometimes he created new ones mimicking the style of the originals.

Rothstein reimagined seven of Ranger Doug’s posters, and put them side by side to highlight how the national parks would look like in 2050 if climate change goes unchecked. The style and colors are similar, but the concepts are dramatic — and that’s for one particular reason. “Emotional impact is key to creating change,” Rothstein says. The bleak facts she lists on her posters are not made up, she says, they come from the National Park Service website and from news articles about how climate change is affecting the parks. “I didn't make it up. It’s based on fact,” she says.

Rothstein is selling the posters on her website, and she’s giving 25 percent of the proceedings to climate-related causes. She also hopes her art will encourage people to do something about climate change, even just acknowledge it as a nonpartisan issue. Everyone loves the national parks, and the majority of Americans don’t want to see them gone. Rothstein is one of them.

“They speak to me emotionally and visually as an artist,” Rothstein says. “And it’s important to me that they’re still around down the road.”

See the rest of Rothstein’s posters below, side by side with Ranger Doug’s originals.

Ranger Doug / Hannah Rothstein
Ranger Doug / Hannah Rothstein
Ranger Doug / Hannah Rothstein
Ranger Doug / Hannah Rothstein
Ranger Doug / Hannah Rothstein