BOZEMAN — A climate report for the Greater Yellowstone Area co-authored by Montana State University Regents Professor Emerita Cathy Whitlock has been gaining traction around the world since it was published on June 23.
The Greater Yellowstone Climate Assessment, a collaborative effort between MSU, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the University of Wyoming, is a comprehensive look at climate change in the area using data from 1950 to 2018. Since 1950, the report states, average temperatures in the Greater Yellowstone Area have gone up 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit and snowfall has decreased by 25%. If the trend continues, that average temperature could rise another 10 degrees by the end of the century and drastically change the landscape.
Whitlock, a paleoecologist who has spent more than four decades studying environmental change, has been on the faculty of the Department of Earth Sciences in the College of Letters and Science at MSU since 2004, co-founded the Montana Institute on Ecosystems and was the first researcher from a Montana institution elected to the National Academy of Sciences. In March, she gave a talk for TEDxBigSky on how the Yellowstone ecosystem’s history can shed light on its future. Since the report’s publication, Whitlock has been featured in follow-up articles in news media such as The Guardian and a Canadian Broadcasting Company radio program.
Much of the coverage has delved into the potential changes in some of Yellowstone National Park’s most prominent features, like its geysers. A July 16 segment on “Day 6,” a CBC news radio show, begins with a note on this summer’s extreme heat, drought, and wildfires in western Canada.
“There is also a crisis south of the border, including in the iconic Yellowstone National Park which is now under a fire alert,” host Brent Bambury says in the introduction to the segment, “As the climate warms, Yellowstone Park is losing its snow — and potentially Old Faithful,” from Episode 555.
“I worry about future generations, like my granddaughter,” Whitlock says on the program. “Is she even going to recognize the places that I love in Yellowstone when she starts to explore it? It’s changing so fast.”
The Guardian, one of the leading newspapers in the UK that has become a global news organization, proclaimed “Yellowstone’s most famous geyser could shut down, with huge ramifications,” in a July 6 headline.
In the article, Whitlock states that Old Faithful has dried up in the past, and the megadroughts that caused it to stop erupting were potentially less extreme than what we’re seeing now.
“We are now moving into a climate that seems even warmer and drier than those periods,” Whitlock says in the article. “That’s crazy. It’s possible that this whole geyser basin and the plumbing is going to change.”
Geysers aren’t the only thing at risk as temperatures rise.
“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,” the article states. “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.”
The article ends with a plea and a bit of hope from Whitlock, who is noted for devoting much of her career to sharing the changes she sees in her research with the public in hopes of fueling positive change.
“What we do in the next decade is critical,” she says to conclude the article. “We have new technologies, we can solve this. We just need the will to do it.”