Climate Change

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Snowfall in Yellowstone melts into rivers that span the continent from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. Scientists are documenting significant changes in the amount of snow that falls here as well as the intensity and timing of spring runoff. These trends could affect everything you see when you come to the park, as well as everyone and everything living downstream.

A graph of atmospheric concentrations of CO2 showing years from 1960 to 2020 on x axis and parts per million of 320 to 400 on y axis. The red line increases sharply over the time period.

Today, climate change is no longer a vague threat in our future; it is the changing reality we live with, and it requires continuous planning and adaptation. Climate change presents significant risks to our nation’s natural and cultural resources. Though natural evolution and change are an integral part of our national parks, climate change jeopardizes their physical infrastructure, natural and cultural resources, visitor experience, and intrinsic values. Climate change is fundamentally transforming protected lands and will continue to do so for many years to come. Climate change will affect everyone’s experience of our national parks.

Some effects are already measurable. Warmer temperatures are accelerating the melting of mountain glaciers, reducing snowpack, and changing the timing, temperature, and amount of streamflow. These changes are expected to result in the loss or relocation of native species, altered vegetation patterns, and reduced water availability in some regions. Wildfire seasons have expanded, and fires have increased in severity, frequency, and size. More acres burned in the fire season of 2016 than in any year in the last century, except for 1988. Conditions that favor outbreaks of pests, pathogens, disease, and nonnative species invasion occur more frequently than in the recent past. In Alaska, melting sea ice threatens marine mammals as well as coastal communities, while thawing permafrost disrupts the structural basis of large regions, jeopardizing the physical stability of natural systems as well as buildings, roads, and facilities. Rising sea levels, ocean warming, and acidification affect wildlife habitat, cultural and historic features, coastal archeological sites, and park infrastructure, resulting in damage to and the loss of some coastal resources. Some studies suggest that extreme weather events such as thunderstorms, hurricanes,and windstorms that damage park infrastructure and habitat are increasing in frequency and intensity. Climate change will manifest itself not only as changes in average conditions, creating a “new normal,” but also as changes in particular climate events (e.g., more intense storms, floods, or drought). These extreme climate events may cause widespread and fundamental shifts in conditions of park resources.

A 2014 assessment of the magnitude and direction of ongoing climate changes in Yellowstone National Park showed that recent climatic conditions are already shifting beyond the historical range of variability. Ongoing and future climate change will likely affect all aspects of park management, including natural and cultural resource protection as well as park operations and visitor experience. In order to deal with the predicted impacts, effective planning and management must be grounded in concrete information about past dynamics, present conditions, and projected future change.

A view of Mount Washburn with purple flowers in the foreground and a snow patch off in the distance

Changes in Yellowstone Climate

Scientists with the National Park Service and other organizations closely monitor variables that may reflect a changing climate.

A dead tree reflects clearly on the runoff held by the Upper Mammoth Terraces

Climate Change Explorer

The Climate Change Explorer is a tool that compares past averages to future predictions for variables in the Greater Yellowstone Area.

A great blue heron preparing to take flight in the early morning along the Yellowstone River

Examining the Evidence

Climate change is predicted to cause birds to shift their range, migratory patterns and timing, and interfere with reproduction.



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Last updated: September 2, 2020

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