Almost 150 years after it was designated as the first national park in the US, the 3,472 square kilometers Yellowstone National Park is facing a threat that local laws and designation can not protect; rising temperatures.
The park, spread across the states of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, has been experiencing gradual changes due to global warming. It includes short winters, long summers, frequent wildfires, and decreasing snowpacks.
A climate assessment has laid out these changes that have already taken place and also projected changes as temperatures continue to rise, with all nations agreeing to disagree on the measures to be taken to combat them.
The impact is being felt far across its immediate borders, in the Greater Yellowstone eco-system which covers an area 10 times that of the park.
Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Teton National Park could face drastic changes even as the region experienced an upward trend in temperatures.
Receding Snowline At Yellowstone National Park Could Mean Extreme Weather
The average temperature at Yellowstone National Park has risen 2.3F (1.3C) since 1950. The most marked warming has taken place at elevations over 5,000 feet. Even more significant is the loss of one-fourth of the annual snowfall. The region could face a rise of 5 to 6F between 2061 and 2080 compared to the average between 1986 and 2005.
The decline in snowfall at Yellowstone National Park in January and March has been 53% and 43% respectively. Snowfall in September is as good as gone, with a drop of 96%.
By the end-century, Yellowstone National Park could see a rise of as much as 10 to 11F. This will wipe away the snow from the high country surrounding Yellowstone National Park. Precipitation that used to fall in the form of snow in previous decades now falls as rain, which has led to an increase in annual precipitation.
The loss of snow will have severe repercussions on the local ecosystem and wildlife. It will also lead to extreme weather, alternating heavy rains, and wildfires. The region is the only point of convergence of the three river basins.
The green-Colorado basin, the Snake-Columbia basin, and the Missouri River Basin, all start their journey from the frozen peaks of the Continental Divide before meandering across the plateaus and peaks of the Yellowstone National Park.
The impact of climate change will severely affect diverse wildlife. A decline in the trout population will disrupt the food supply of the endangered grizzly bear.
Downstream cities and farmlands will also be severely affected for miles. Forest fires such as the ones that severely affected Yellowstone National Park in 1988 will become common.
Also affected will be the tourism economy of the place that contributed nearly $800 billion to the 3 states.
A Startling Shift From Snow To Rain
The grimmest assessment of the predicted changes is the raising of the winter snowline. The average snowline stays at present at around 6,000 feet in winter. Almost all precipitation comes down as snow. But towards the end of this century, the winter snowline will go up to 10,000 feet, around the top of the famed ski areas of Jackson Hole.
The future assessment contains multiple scenarios, where it is assumed that all countries will agree to a substantial reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases. Such a proposition seems laughable given the current state of disagreement between all nations.
A higher rate of emissions globally reveals a stark picture where even the higher peaks will not receive snow regularly. The challenge in the coming years for the Greater Yellowstone National Park region will be directly linked to the availability of water, which will remain the biggest concern for all. The summers will be drier and wildfires will become common.
Wildlife migration will be affected, and cold-water fisheries threatened by the warm waters and low stream flow.
Steps taken today will decide the future of Yellowstone National Park. It could mean that even high mountain towns like Jackson in Wyoming could face hot summers that could be either for 2 weeks or 2 months. Actions taken now will decide that.