Climate Change in Yellowstone and Other National Parks

Despite being some of the best-protected places on Earth, our National Parks are impacted by climate change and associated environmental degradation. We will continue to experience significant threats at Yellowstone and other parks if we do not act to reverse the current trends of global warming and extreme weather changes.

“If we continue to increase our emissions of heat-trapping gases, a disrupted climate will cause the greatest damage to our national parks ever.”
~ Stephen Saunders, NRDC

Global Climate Change
As defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: “Climate refers to the mean and variability of different types of weather conditions over time, with 30 years being a typical period for such measurements, although shorter or longer periods also may be used,” and, “The term climate change thus refers to a change in the mean or variability of one or more measures of climate (e.g., temperature or precipitation) that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer, whether the change is due to natural variability, human activity, or both” (source). Hundreds of climate and weather models’ predictions have been verified by field data from stations around the world, as of 2015, with actual events even surpassing initial forecasts about rates of change in our environments. One of the largest variables in these models is greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide and methane. Emissions from human activity and other sources directly and indirectly contribute to global warming, ocean acidification, public health issues, and habitat loss, among other global and regional outcomes of climate change (source).

Impacts at Yellowstone
In Yellowstone—and in national parks across the country—the consequences of climate change have already begun to appear. Scientists monitor Yellowstone’s snowpack levels, temperatures at different elevations and water sources, fire events, plant growth rates and pollen production, soil conditions, biodiversity, and various additional factors to gauge climate change’s contributions to plant and wildlife shifts in growth cycles, migrations, and base geographic ranges. According to information from the NPS and adapted here, other present and likely impacts associated with climate change include:

  • Research indicates Yellowstone’s temperature will continue to rise over the next century, but the behavior of precipitation is more difficult to predict. Average temperatures in the park are higher now than they were 50 years ago, especially during springtime. Nighttime temperatures seem to be increasing more rapidly than daytime temperatures.
  • In the last 50 years, the growing season has increased by roughly 30 days in some areas of the park.
  • At the Northeast entrance, there are now 80 more days per year above freezing than in the 1960s.
  • There are approximately 30 fewer days per year with snow on the ground than there were in the 1960s.
  • Fire frequency and season length could increase.
  • Changes in the composition of plants and animals throughout the park.
  • Altered amount and timing of spring snowmelt, which affects water levels, vegetation growth, and the movement of wildlife—from migrating bison and spawning trout, to the arrival of pollinators. As headwaters to significant water basins, any change in the rivers flowing out of Yellowstone then affects downstream users like ranchers, farmers, towns, and cities.

Whitebark Pine

Pinus albicaulis is a keystone tree species with nutrient-rich seeds that support high levels of biodiversity in western North America, including for nuthatch and grosbeak bird species, pine squirrels, and bears (source). The whitebark pine’s lifespan can span up to 500 years—and sometimes more than 1,000 years! However, warming temperatures have allowed the nonnative white pine blister rust, Cronartium ribicola and other threats like the predatory native mountain pine beetle, Dendroctonus ponderosae to survive winters at abormal levels, reproduce more rapidly and spread in our ecosystem to destroy whitebark pines and several other tree species too. This has greatly increased tree mortality in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the whitebark pine is a candidate on the federal endangered species list (source). The significant tree losses are estimated to be at over fifty percent in the forseeable future, diminishing a core foodsource and threatening the long-term viability of a number of Yellowstone’s animal populations.

Grizzly Bears

In Yellowstone, the grizzly bear relies on the seeds of the whitebark pine as an important part of its diet. Sadly, these trees are being destroyed at an alarming rate by a beetle that is thriving because of increasing temperatures. NRDC senior wildlife advocate Louisa Wilcox raises the alarm. “If these trees go, they could take Yellowstone’s grizzlies…with them. If we want to save not just the whitebark pine, but the animals and plants like the grizzly bear that depend on this tree for food, we need to move to protect and restore them now.”

Pikas

The American pika is threatened by rising temperatures that have significantly diminished its habitat. Also nicknamed boulder bunnies, these cold-loving, alpine dwelling creatures can perish from overheating. In 2003, the World Wildlife Fund sponsored a study that found pikas had vanished over ten-year period from 7 of 25 sites in Nevada, California, and Oregon. In 2008, the pika became the first mammal in the lower 48 to be considered for endangered species status because of the impacts of global warming.

Glaciers

At the current accelerated rate of melt, scientists predict glaciers will disappear from Glacier National Park by 2030. In the North Cascades, the park’s total glacial mass has shrunk 80% since 1956.

Geysers

Old Faithful could become less faithful as the result of climate change. A study in the June 2008 issue of Geology suggested that drought has lengthened Old Faithful’s eruption cycle. A nine-year study by Shaul Hurwitz of the U.S. Geological Survey measured the relationship between drought and geyser activity; Mr. Hurwitz predicts that if current trends continue, “Our grandchildren will have to wait longer for Old Faithful to erupt.”

Bighorn Sheep

Desert Bighorn sheep in Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Canyonlands, Zion, Grand Canyon, and Great Basin National Parks face extinction. California’s bighorn sheep populations have already dwindled from 80 to 30 locations.

Our Collective Responsibility to Act
These significant problems drive Xanterra’s continuous commitment to Legendary Hospitality with a Softer Footprint. With valuable public lands at stake, Xanterra recognizes its responsibility to visitors, communities, and future generations, as well as its own livelihood, to reduce risks, mitigate impacts, and adapt to changes.
Our concern for protecting and improving current quality of life standards, resource replenishment, and opportunities to enjoy and benefit from nature in our lives and work means that it is important for us to understand the potential repercussions of these forces—and our opportunities to control them. Xanterra is a partner in the World Wildlife Federation’s Climate Savers program to support business network collaboration on commitments to strong environmental actions. In addition, Xanterra recently joined dozens of other major brands to sign the Ceres Climate Declaration and urge more proactive leadership in national climate and energy policies.

For more information