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
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
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,
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.