Heavy rain and rapid snowmelt over a few days caused a dramatic flood that may forever change the human footprint on Yellowstone National Park’s terrain and the communities that have grown around it.
“The landscape literally and figuratively has changed dramatically in the last 36 hours,” said Bill Berg, a commissioner in nearby Park County. “A little bit ironic that this spectacular landscape was created by violent geologic and hydrologic events, and it’s just not very handy when it happens while we’re all here settled on it.”
The unprecedented flooding drove more than 10,000 visitors out of the nation’s oldest national park and damaged hundreds of homes in nearby communities. Remarkably, no was reported hurt or killed. The only visitors left in the massive park straddling three states were a dozen campers still making their way out of the backcountry.
The park could remain closed as long as a week, and northern entrances may not reopen this summer, Superintendent Cam Sholly said.
“I’ve heard this is a 1,000-year event, whatever that means these days. They seem to be happening more and more frequently,” he said.
Sholly noted that some weather forecasts include the possibility of additional flooding this weekend.
Days of rain and rapid snowmelt caused damage to parts of southern Montana and northern Wyoming, where it washed away cabins, swamped small towns and knocked out power. It hit the park as a summer tourist season that draws millions of visitors was ramping up during its 150th anniversary year.
Some of the worst damage happened in the northern part of the park and Yellowstone’s gateway communities in southern Montana. National Park Service photos of northern Yellowstone showed a mudslide, washed-out bridges and roads undercut by churning floodwaters of the Gardner and Lamar rivers.
In Red Lodge, a town of 2,100 that’s a popular jumping-off point for a scenic route into the Yellowstone high country, a creek running through town jumped its banks and swamped the main thoroughfare, leaving trout swimming in the street a day later under sunny skies.
At least 200 homes were flooded in Red Lodge and the town of Fromberg.
While the flooding hasn’t been directly attributed to climate change, Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said a warming environment makes extreme weather events more likely than they would have been “without the warming that human activity has caused.”
“Will Yellowstone have a repeat of this in five or even 50 years? Maybe not, but somewhere will have something equivalent or even more extreme,” he said.