Recreational Behavior Impacted by Climate Change

Whether it’s launching a boat, casting a fishing line, or swimming to cool off, most people going to a lake seldom think about how climate change is influencing their general recreation experience. But the reality is, it does. Research at the University of New Hampshire reveals that as poor water quality conditions in lakes continue to rise, boaters, anglers, and beachgoers are using a range of coping mechanisms that can change their behavior, from switching to a different location or activity to just deserting the experience completely.

Stock photo: Beach by Lake Erie

Some of these people are driving two to three hundred miles to take a lake vacation, only to arrive to a sign that says the beach is closed because of E. coli. Increasing water temperatures and fluctuating water levels, as a result of global climate change, are expected to intensify these adverse environmental conditions and researchers and natural resource managers need to better understand how it effects the behaviors and habits of recreationists so that they can educate the public and better prepare for future conditions.

Michael Ferguson, Assistant Professor of Recreation Management & Policy

In the research, scientists from UNH and Pennsylvania State University studied the coping behavior of recreationists across the 77 miles of the Pennsylvania Lake Erie coastline. The popular destination for outdoor aficionados is home to numerous public parks and recreation facilities with fishing piers, beaches, and boat launches with more than 4.2 million visitors each year. The concern of natural resource managers and scientists is that ongoing water quality issues such as risky algal blooms and E. coli bacteria could influence the way visitors perceive the physical environment and affect their total recreation experience.

Scientists surveyed visitors in 13 publicly accessible coastal parks and protected areas and discovered that those aware of, and affected by, water quality problems on any given day frequently changed their behavior to cope with the issue. In certain cases, swimmers put off their plunge until later in the day, anglers headed to another inland lake or planned to travel further into deeper waters, and some visitors eventually decided to leave and were not likely to come back.

“While this study took place in the Great Lakes, this is just a snapshot of what is happening to many similar bodies of water across the country,” said the scientists. “This is a very real problem. From a recreational standpoint, these coping mechanisms could have a large impact on not only the public who are looking to enjoy the lakes, but also on the towns and surrounding areas that depend on the outdoor recreation and tourism economy.”

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, consumers spend $887 billion yearly on outdoor recreation and the industry provides 7.6 million jobs. The universal presence of global climate change indicates the severity of environmental conditions will probably continue to increase. The scientists say together with trying to fight these environmental changes, more effective policies and procedures are necessary to better inform the public and help them, and natural resource managers, manage and adapt to a changing environment.

Contributing to these findings are Andrew Mowen, chief investigator and professor of recreation park and tourism management; Alan Graefe, professor of recreation park and tourism management; and Tom Mueller, doctoral candidate of recreation park and tourism management; all at Pennsylvania State University.

This research was supported partly by Pennsylvania Sea Grant.

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