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Climate change threatens Yellowstone’s natural splendor

Higher average temperature and less snow affect world-famous geysers and wildlife in the national park.

Old Faithful, a geyser famous for erupting at regular intervals, is one of the most popular attractions in Yellowstone National Park. The geyser could erupt less frequently as drought conditions become more common in the park.  (Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)
Old Faithful, a geyser famous for erupting at regular intervals, is one of the most popular attractions in Yellowstone National Park. The geyser could erupt less frequently as drought conditions become more common in the park. (Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)
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Yellowstone National Park visitors hoping to see its geysers, wolves and bears can expect warmer weather and less snow as climate change alters the park’s environment, according to a report by U.S. government and university researchers released last week.

Average temperatures in the Yellowstone region in recent decades were probably the highest of the past 800,000 years, according to geologic studies. And average annual snowfall has decreased by nearly two feet since 1950.

The changing climate could affect some of the park’s most popular sites, including Old Faithful, a geyser famous for erupting at regular intervals.

Past droughts have reduced the frequency of water shooting out of the geyser, meaning it could erupt less frequently as drought conditions become more common in the park, Bryan Shuman said during a news conference last week. Shuman is a geology professor at the University of Wyoming.

Temperatures in the region have increased by more than 2 degrees since 1950 and are expected to increase by an additional 5 to 10 degrees by the end of the century, according to findings by scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey, Montana State University and the University of Wyoming.

The report summarizes existing data and projected changes to temperature, precipitation and water in the Yellowstone region, which covers parts of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Researchers said they intend for the report to serve as a starting point for discussions on responding to the impact of climate change on the environment, local economies and ways of life in the region.

Communities in the surrounding area, including Bozeman, Montana, and Jackson, Wyoming, could see between 40 and 60 more days per year of temperatures above 90 degrees.

Also by the end of the century, visitors probably will see more rain, but higher temperatures are likely to mean drier summers, increasing the wildfire risk.

These changes come as the park’s popularity has grown. In recent years, the park has received about 4 million visitors each year. Park officials expect 2021 to draw a record number of tourists as coronavirus-pandemic restrictions ease and travelers seek outdoor recreation.

Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said he is noticing the effects of the warming climate on recreation, including in winter. The season typically brings snowmobilers and others who rely on snow covering the park roads.

Winter recreation normally starts in late November or early December, but in recent years, there wasn’t enough snow to cover the roads as late as January, Sholly said.

The changes also are likely to affect Native American tribes that have called the region home for thousands of years.

“Climate change has the potential to fundamentally change the ecological processes that have defined and supported the tribes’ unique life ways,” said Chad Colter, director of the fish and wildlife department of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.

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