As kettle ponds in Yellowstone National Park shrink, trumpeter swan numbers drop. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

With piles of popular articles on the subject and decades of research behind us, you’d think we’d all be experts on global warming by now, right? But it turns out that half of the adults in the United States would probably earn an F on a pop quiz about climate change.

According to a study conducted by University of Wisconsin geography fellow Jennifer Marion, with researchers at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, nearly 70 percent of us believe, for instance, that banning aerosol spray cans will reduce global warming. (It won’t.)

There’s hope, however, for the majority of us that seem to have tuned out the dire news regarding the reams of scientific studies that support the fact that our planet is becoming dangerously warmer. That hope comes in the form of Yellowstone National Park: a visual-learner’s CliffsNotes on global warming.

Longer growing seasons alter elk migrations, making the animals avoid higher elevations where they can shelter from predators. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Half the class—52 percent—failed the exam

A recent survey conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication asked U.S. adults ages 18 and older about the causes, impacts and potential solutions related to global warming and how our climate system works. Just 8 percent had enough knowledge to earn a grade of A or B on the set of questions. And while 63 percent believe that global warming is real and happening, 49 percent incorrectly think that the space program contributes to it, 47 percent erroneously say that fossil fuels are the fossilized remains of dinosaurs, and 42 percent are convinced that since scientists can’t predict the weather more than a few days in advance, they can’t possibly foretell the climate of the future.

Field trip: Yellowstone National Park

While seeing how we did as a nation on this type of “reading test” is alarming, we also recognize that not everyone is a traditional learner. And that’s where Yellowstone National Park may come to the rescue with an alternative teaching technique.

During the past 100 years, average annual temperatures throughout Yellowstone have risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit, which is nearly two times faster than global temperatures have risen in the same period. So while many scientists around the world study computerized climate-change models in a laboratory, a visit to Yellowstone provides an in-your-face look at climate change, in the real world.

The park’s 2.2 million acres account for one of the few places left in the Lower 48 states where the impacts of humankind remain light and where the ecosystem is still relatively intact. It’s a natural laboratory in an almost-original state.

The ice fields in Montana’s Glacier National Park may be gone by the end of the decade.

The effects of global warming are seen almost everywhere you look in Yellowstone. Many pines stand out as rusty, brown sticks against a backdrop of colorful meadows and green mountains. Warmer winters have allowed mountain pine beetles—which infest the trees and kill them—to proliferate, moving from the lower lodgepole pine areas to whitebark pine in the higher elevations. The invasive insects have been able to travel to the higher altitudes because rising temperatures protect their larvae from freezing.

In other parts of the park, trees are marching into Yellowstone’s meadows, filling in open areas that are critical for deer and elk. And since green growth triggers the elk and deer migrations, biologists worry that longer growing seasons could keep the animals from moving to higher elevations where they find shelter from predators. As warmer temperatures cause kettle ponds in the park to shrink, trumpeter swan numbers drop—in fact, the birds’ population numbers are at their lowest level in 80 years. Nine swans were counted in 2010, which marks a 73 percent decrease during the past decade and the fewest since surveys began in 1931.

Playing hooky can be good for the planet

Experts now say that the ice fields at Glacier National Park in Montana may be gone by the end of the decade. The namesake plant at Joshua Tree National Park in California is disappearing, as are the tall trees in the state’s Redwoods National Park. And increasing hurricane intensity and frequency are damaging portions of Everglades National Park in Florida.

But as the world’s first national park, Yellowstone is probably the one that most Americans hold dearest. And therein lies its power. It may be that traveling to this icon of our nation will convey the perils of global warming more than reading any amount of scientific data ever could.

Have you witnessed any signs of global warming in the natural places where you live? Does that make the dangers of climate change feel more real to you?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy