As goes Yellowstone, so goes the planet: climate change will drastically alter Yellowstone in coming decades, with warmer temperatures, longer and more volatile fire seasons, shorter winters, less snowfall and visible changes in the dominant species of plants –all fundamentally altered by global warming in the coming decades.
Scientists have already documented dozens of changes in the park in the past 50 years, writes Katharine Lackey in USA Today, including 30 fewer days with snow on the ground per year, 80 more days above freezing per year at the northeast entrance and higher average temperatures overall, especially during the nighttime. The ramifications are huge, but exactly what that means for the park in the future is hard to pinpoint.
“We’re kind of in the middle of it, and we’re now thinking of those historic trends as more of an indicator for us about where we’re going into the future,” said Ann Rodman, director of geographic information system operations for the park.
“The combination of the changing climate and potential fires coming through the area could cause Yellowstone to look like a completely different place than it does now – much more shrub-lands, grasslands, and fewer areas covered in forest,” adds Rodman.
The warmer, drier conditions are likely to change the plants found in the park and disrupt the migration of animals. Rodman says it could also cause more frequent and intense wildfires, setting off a chain of devastation. When fires destroy old growth trees, they leave the land vulnerable to invasive species such as cheatgrass. This grass spreads quickly and could completely take over the landscape,“… which would be an ecological disaster for Yellowstone,” said Rodman.
“There’s going to be plants that are more conducive to growing in hotter, drier climates either from lower elevation moving up or from outside the park coming in,” Rodman said. “Our whole way of dealing with that in the past has been keeping the things that have always been here here and keeping out things that are moving in. We’re going to have to rethink all of that.”
Yellowstone and other ecosystems have undergone immense change due to natural climate cycles in the past. What makes it so different today is the timescale on which these changes are happening. Big temperature swings used to take 5,000 to 10,000 years.
“One of the things about climate change that I’m beginning to appreciate is the rate and speed at which this is happening, which is kind of the unprecedented part in all of this,” she said. “Now, they’re happening in decades.”
“At the lowest elevations of the park, we’ve seen a huge change in vegetation in the last 10 years,” Rodman said.
It’s not unnatural for the dominant forest type in any particular area to change overtime. But the timescale that happens on is usually much longer, said John Gross, an ecologist with the National Park Service’s Climate Change response program. “The big deal with climate change is all this is happening really really fast,” he said. “A transition that might have previously occurred over several hundred years that’s going to occur now over a really short period, maybe 50 years or 100 years.”
“That conclusion is pretty much inescapable,” said John Gross, an ecologist with the National Park Service’s Climate Change response program. “It’s really more a question of the when and how it occurs than if.”
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