YELLOWSTONE, Wyo. — A new climate assessment and a recent study found that rising temperatures, reduced snowfall and increased rain threaten to shut Old Faithful off completely by the end of the century.
In a recent report from The Guardian, writer Adam Popescu discussed the devastating aftermath that would unfold if Yellowstone’s famous geyser shut down, being one of the world’s last intact temperate ecosystems.
“If temperatures at Yellowstone rise 10 degrees Fahrenheit (5.6 degrees Celsius) by the end of the century, as they are projected to, this vast ecosystem will be disrupted. Old Faithful will almost surely shut off completely, and the snowpack that feeds rivers throughout the west may disappear,” said Popescu.
The park, Popescu explained, has an ecosystem three times the size of Rhode Island, stretching 22 million acres across Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Right now, nothing can protect the park against the threat of rising temperatures.
“But this is not the first time this has happened,” wrote Popescu. “About 800 years ago, extreme heat and drought made Old Faithful come to a complete standstill for decades, a shift which changed everything from what plant species grew in the area to what the land looked like.”
While it has occurred before, the report mentions that the period of megadroughts that caused the dry-up then was potentially less extreme than now.
“We are now moving into a climate that seems even warmer and drier than those periods. That’s crazy. It’s possible that this whole geyser basin and the plumbing is going to change,” said Cathy Whitlock, a paleoclimatologist at Montana State University.
As the co-author of Yellowstone’s first-ever climate assessment, Whitlock found that since 1950, the area’s average temperature has increased by 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.3 degrees Celsius ). Although such a small shift may seem benign, it is not.
“The last Ice Age was only about 5-7 degrees Fahrenheit (2.8-3.9 degrees Celsius) colder than the pre-industrial period,” said Popescu.
According to the recent Yellowstone climate assessment, the recent temperature in the park has been high as or higher than in any period in the last 20,000 years and could be the warmest of the last 800,000 years. The repercussions of these rising temperatures are vast and worrisome to those who have studied the ecosystem.
“So far, no one is 100% sure whether the changes were caused by climate alone. But as trees die off due to the hotter climate, forests may shrink in the coming decades, which will have a cascading effect: less forest and fewer tree roots mean more grass and more erosion. Drier grass means fewer nutrients for large mammals. Less water also hurts everything from migratory and aquatic species to grazers like bison, who face decreased nutrients from dry plants.”
Popescu described how extreme weather in Yellowstone is now the norm and blazes like the huge 1988 fires – which burned 800,000 acres – are a seasonal worry.
Chris Schiller, a post-doctoral research associate at Montana State University expressed that this is a crucial moment. The report also highlights how this is not just an ecological and environmental threat.
“…ranchers, miners and toursim are all set to be affected should the pristine settings and the water these mountains produce dry up – which could ultimately mean financial losses.”
Not to mention, the Yellowstone, Snake and Green Rivers are vital sources for agriculture, recreation, energy production and even household water. Regional farming is also bound to be gravely affected by reduced snowfall and the numerous industries that rely on Yellowstone’s world-class rivers and ski areas for angling and black diamond runs.
Whitlock argued that although people are not keen to hear that changes are happening, it is important to provide evidence so not all projections will become reality.
“The trajectory we take depends on what we do about greenhouse gas now. By 2040, 2050 we can flatten the curve, ” Whitlock said. “What we do in the next decade is critical. We have new technologies, we can solve this, we just need the will to do it.”