Yellowstone National Park / by Alexis Fairbanks

Written by Adam Fairbanks

Photographed by Alexis Fairbanks

Yellowstone National Park, known for its gravity defying geysers, colorful hot

springs, and the two tumbling waterfalls that carve out the grand canyon of

Yellowstone, is possibly our nation’s most iconic National Park. Unfortunately, its

fame cannot protect Yellowstone’s ecology from the increasingly present threats of

climate change.

Temperatures are increasing across the globe and the Yellowstone

area—mostly in Wyoming but spilling over into both Montana and Idaho—is not

immune. The Park has noticed an uptick in both average minimal and average

overall temperatures, particularly since 1980. Global climate models predict that by

the end of this century, the mean temperature in the greater Yellowstone area will

increase by 2.6-5.7 degrees Celsius.

A temperature increase of this magnitude will have profound effects on

Yellowstone’s ecology and could be disastrous for some of its foundational species:

the five needle pine trees. As temperatures rise they force the tree line to rise as

well, which decreases the amount of land this group of trees can grow on. These

trees play an essential role in the Yellowstone ecosystem, providing food and shelter

for animals from birds and chipmunks to the Yellowstone grizzly bear. In fact,

concern over the loss of range for the five needle pine trees prompted a judge to

restore the Endangered Species Act protection on the Yellowstone grizzly bear in

2009.

Precipitation patters are also changing in Yellowstone. While average

precipitation has seen a slight increase since 1900, its recently been falling earlier in

the year. In addition, the rising temperatures throughout the year mean less

snowfall to feed the rivers and streams that run through Yellowstone. These two

factors coupled together mean especially dry, hot summers—favorable conditions

for one of Yellowstone’s other famous features: fire.

Wildfire is a natural force in the western environments of the United States.

It serves as a renewing agent by clearing fields and forests of dead plant debris and

quickly returning those stored nutrients back to the soil. Many plants and animals

have evolved to coexist and even benefit from wildfires. Some grasses store their

nutrients in tubers under the ground so that the fire can’t scorch them, and once it

passes they simply sprout up again. Some species of evergreens drop cones that

only open after the extreme heat of a forest fire, ensuring that their seeds will be the

first to germinate in the freshly cleared ground.

However, with increasingly hot, dry summers, experts fear that Yellowstone

may see more fires like the ones of 1988. The fire raged for several months and

burned 793,000 acres: over one third of the Park. Even smaller fires that occurred

more frequently would have the power to radically change Yellowstone’s ecology.

As fires burn through forests they clear the way for new life to flourish, but only by

destroying the old. Yellowstone’s old growth forests could literally go up in smoke,

and the Park would be left with a completely different ecosystem based on newer,

younger forests.

The environmental problems that are currently facing Yellowstone and will

face Yellowstone in the future are the same problems that our entire country, and

our entire planet, will be facing shortly. Environmental change is coming at an

accelerated rate, and has been for some time now. In the coming years it will

become impossible to ignore, and in the years after that it may become impossible

to live with. We—as citizens of the world—need to change our habits and our way

of life if we want to avoid the total ecologic collapse that is almost surely coming

before the turn of the next century.