Yellowstone National Park is renowned for its brutal mountain winters, but as time goes on, Yellowstone winters could change dramatically.
Using an algorithm developed at the University of Montana, Adam Sepulveda, a research zoologist at the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center in Bozeman, calculated temperatures at 50 different sites within the [Greater Yellowstone Area] between 1948 and 2012 at different elevations and with varied sun exposure to look for patterns. The study appears in the latest issue of the journal Plos One.
Given the warming trend, Sepulveda said “the most recognized threat” to the region is the possibility of less snowfall.
“Our data show us that winter is warming the fastest, and particularly March,” he said, which is the primary snow-producing month in the GYA.
Steve Running, a regents professor of ecology at the University of Montana, whose department developed the algorithm Sepulveda used, said “our biggest temperature changes (around the Northern Rockies) are in the winter months.”
“Whereas 40 to 50 below zero used to be common in the winter, now it’s 20 to 30 below, which still sounds cold, but that’s a lot warmer,” Running said.
The impact warmer winters would bear on Yellowstone National Park cannot be overstated. For instance: less snowfall, combined with higher temperatures, diminishes the amount of snowpack expected to carry over into the spring. Said snowpack feeds Yellowstone’s many waterways and subsequently impacts the waterways fed (in part) by Yellowstone streams and rivers. There’s a whole ripple effect, according to the Geological Survey:
The warming Winter temperatures in the GYA are of large concern because the majority of surface water in this region originates as mountain snowpack. These surface waters feed three major rivers that provide critical societal and environmental services: the Snake-Columbia, the Green-Colorado, and the Yellowstone-Missouri rivers. Increases in Winter and Spring temperatures in the West result in less snow accumulation in the Winter and earlier timing of water released from the snowpack [38, 55–57], which affect the timing of water delivery to downstream irrigation users, municipalities, and hydropower production facilities and influence recreational water uses (e.g., angling and boating) in gateway and downstream communities . Importantly, we documented that much of the Winter temperature warming has occurred in March, which is the primary snow-producing month in this region .
And, of course, the amount of water in the Park carries over into how much plant and animal life can thrive.
In addition: warmer Yellowstone winters throws a definite kink in winter recreation. Granted, winter is the Park’s least popular season in terms of numbers, since the cold and lack of access keep a large number out. But think of the potential danger of a warmer winter. If, say, someday, there’s not enough snow for the coaches to run on, to say nothing of snowmobiles.
This might have some cheering, but it could introduce new levels of stress to Park infrastructure if visitation starts rising during winter.
There is some hope, however, that the GYA will not be too bludgeoned with rising temperatures, compared to other regions of the world. From the Missoulian:
As regions go, the varied elevations and terrain of the GYA will help armor it somewhat against that gradual change.
“It has the potential to be more resilient at least to extremes,” Sepulveda said, “because it’s a larger area with topographic and climate variability.”
“Think of the diversity of habitat in an Iowa cornfield, you have one,” Running explained. “In Yellowstone, you have a mixture of habitats that gives the whole ecosystem more resilience.”
Yet even with those protections, warm areas will get warmer and so will cool areas. That means crowding some species like amphibians into a shrinking number of cool, wet areas. As that variety in habitat is lessened, so too are species likely to be trimmed.
“This idea that diversity produces stability tends to be a very important maxim for many things, including conservation,” Sepulveda said.
It remains to be seen what Yellowstone will look like under a regime of warmer temperatures, how the landscape and wildlife will adapt. To say nothing of the people both in the Park year round and the millions who visit every year. One thing is certain though: warming is an inescapable fact when it comes to Yellowstone winters now.