The diversity here at Yellowstone National Park is truly amazing. The park ranges in elevation from 5,282 feet here at Reese Creek to 11,358 feet on Eagle Peak, high in the Absaroka Mountains. The landscape here ranges from dry sagebrush steppe to alpine tundra.
The park is famous for the multitude of wildlife species that inhabit this unique place. To protect Yellowstone, we must ask ourselves what climate change means for the park and are there clues today that our nation’s first national park is showing signs of global warming?
Many believe the answer is yes. Plants seem to be the most susceptible to rapid change. It takes generations for a plant species to change locations, especially in mountainous regions. Today, the upper tree-line is around 9,500 feet. As the climate warms, that tree-line moves higher and the Yellowstone region is left with less alpine tundra.
Grizzly bears, pikas and numerous plant species all require the alpine zone for survival. Today, whitebark pine trees that define the upper reaches of the forest are being infested with pine bark beetles. Drought makes it harder for trees to fight these infestations.
At lower elevations near Mammoth Hot Springs, the mature spruce and fir forest is under attack by the spruce budworm. While still in the larval stage of development, the budworm consumes much of the newest growth on the host trees. The dead and drying tips of trees can be seen throughout the Northern Rockies.
Researchers believe the water cycle is changing as well. Spring runoff is occurring 20 days earlier than in the past. In some areas, global warming could mean more precipitation, but with warmer air, evaporation increases.
With warmer rivers, coldwater fish habitat could be reduced by as much as 30%. Some aquatic insects and other stream invertebrates could be wiped out.
Then there’s fire. Average temperatures in the mountain west could increase by as much as 13 degrees. Wildfire seasons that are longer and more intense may already be the norm. Fire releases CO2, the root cause of global warming.
Many of us have built a snowman by first starting with a small ball of snow. We roll the ball and it gets bigger and bigger. But, then we need help to complete our snowman. I believe global warming has been building much like our snowball and we can’t fix it without all of us helping.