Historically, the appeal of America’s national parks has been their commitment to preservation. Whether you visit a park in 1918 or 2018, the experience is the same, as the parks have been kept perfectly intact, unchanging over time. Generations of Americans have all gotten to appreciate the same magnificent beauty.
Now, unfortunately, that may be changing, and climate change is the reason why. According to USA Today, experts have looked at Yellowstone National Park in particular and predicted that drastic changes are on the way in the coming decades. As warmer temperatures and more volatile fire seasons become the norm, it’s unlikely the parks will ever be the same.
Scientists have noted that within the last 50 years, we’ve seen the number of days with snow on the ground at Yellowstone decrease by about 30 per year, and days above freezing during the winter have gone up by about 80. With these dramatic shifts come different types of plant and animal life, meaning visiting the park in the 21st century will be an entirely new experience.
“That conclusion is pretty much inescapable,” National Park Service ecologist John Gross said. “It’s really more a question of the when and how it occurs than if.”
“We’re kind of in the middle of it,” added Ann Rodman, Yellowstone’s director of geographic information system operations. “We’re now thinking of those historic trends as more of an indicator for us about where we’re going into the future.”
Rodman noted that specifically, she’s seen a major change in the types of vegetation that have grown at Yellowstone over the last 10 years. As snow has melted more rapidly and plants have been exposed to more moisture during the winter, land that was once heavily forested has given way to alpine meadows with new flowering plants. She noted that it’s normal for these changes to happen, but they’ve been extraordinarily fast of late. Developments that once took many centuries might now come to pass in just 50 years.
It’s not that Yellowstone and its ilk are disappearing, but they’re certainly headed for an era of rapid change. As major temperature shifts and altered climate cycles continue to set in, the parks will continue to evolve quickly, which is jarring for many to see.
“National parks have been all about preservation and really managing things with a look to the past,” Rodman said. “We have to switch over and be more forward looking and managing for change as opposed to preservation. I worry about our ability to make that switch in time to be effective.”
Photo: A herd of buffalo at Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Shutterstock