Climate Chaos Arrives in Yellowstone

Northern loop road collapse, Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Yellowstone National Park.

Somewhere in Yellowstone’s wild green valleys the wildlife is having a massive party. Bison are cavorting and rolling in the dust, pronghorn and mule deer are having races, coyotes are yipping up a storm, wolves are howling and wrestling and playing, bears are romping about, having tree climbing contests. Even the dour moose are nodding and kicking up their heels and badgers are digging and wriggling about. Cranes call their ancient rattles, ground squirrels run across empty highways, and fish explore remade river channels free of hooks and lines.

On Monday,  June 13 Yellowstone and southern Montana experienced its worst natural disaster in modern times, with the possible exception of the 1959 Hebgen Lake Earthquake. Following a dry and mild winter, unusually heavy late spring snowfall (6 feet over Memorial Day Weekend) in the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains north and east of Yellowstone left the landscape primed for a massive flood. And over the weekend of June 11 and 12 the skies delivered a killer punch in the form of torrential rain – an entire summer’s worth in 3 days. And atmospheric river aimed at Yellowstone like a warm water hose, dousing the wet spring snow pack with a vertical flood of rain. This heavy rain on the deep snow brought 8 inches of water out of the mountains in a hurry, swelling rivers and creeks to unheard of ferocity, altering the course of many rivers and demolishing everything in the way.

Yellowstone is well known and infamous for being one of the biggest and most powerful volcanoes on Earth. Fears of a mega eruption here are genuine but low on the scale of likely disasters. But not many predicted the events of Monday the 13th of June.

Every creek and river coming out of the high country burst its banks, with catastrophic results. Roads were torn apart, bridges destroyed, communities heavily flooded with cold brown rushing water. The normally inviting blue-green Yellowstone River rose to over three feet beyond its record high level, reaching 50,000 cubic feet per second at Corwin Springs just north of the Park, where  the previous record was 32,000. Within hours it undercut riverbanks until homes fell into the river and were swept downstream. The Yellowstone in Yankee Jim Canyon rose 50 feet in a few hours, covering State Highway 89 and ripping down the old one-lane Carbella Bridge. The river, now an insane raging beast, inundated lower lying parts of Paradise Valley and the town of Livingston, requiring the hospital there to be evacuated. Only sandbagging on top of the levee – built following 2 consecutive years of “100-year” floods in 1996 and 1997 – kept the flooding in Livingston from being much worse.

The tourist town of Gardiner Montana was completely cut off as roads all around the town were flooded and destroyed. The town water system was polluted and the power went out. Red Lodge Montana, a popular tourist town on the Beartooth Highway, was devastated when  Rock Creek raged through the middle of town, covering roads in deep rushing water, flooding hundreds of home and businesses and tearing houses off their foundations. The main street in town was left covered with huge boulders and trees and bridges were gone. Cooke City and Silver Gate Montana, near Yellowstone’s Northeast Entrance, were also cut off and lost all their bridges. The Beartooth Highway, called by some “the most scenic road in America”, has at least 6 major washouts and is closed indefinitely. Currently the only way to reach Cooke City is from Cody, Wyoming over the Chief Joseph Highway.

Many other Montana towns and settlements throughout the region suffered massive damage, from Belfry to Absarokee to Roscoe and Nye. The road to the popular East Rosebud Lake was totally destroyed as was a section of road to the Stillwater Mine. In Billings, the state’s largest city, the water treatment plant had to be temporarily shut down.

The one amazing silver lining is that no one was hurt or killed in these floods. Search and Rescue folks deserve a huge amount of credit. Swift water rescues, helicopter recues and rapid contact and evacuation of park visitors made sure everyone was safe.

As I write this Yellowstone Park is completely closed and all tourists – 10,000 or so – have been evacuated. The road into the park from the North Entrance is beyond repair. The raging Gardiner River reduced this important road to rubble, also trashing the sewage system for Mammoth Hot Springs. It is the only road in from the North Entrance to Mammoth Hot Springs, the park headquarters, and is typically very busy. This five mile road is so badly damaged it will probably have to be replaced elsewhere, and in fact $50 million in federal highway money has just been promised to do that.  The road was washed away and compromised between Tower Junction and the Northeast Entrance, meaning Yellowstone’s wildlife-rich Lamar Valley, epicenter of a thriving wildlife tourism industry, is inaccessible.

It is, for now, a whole different world in Lamar Valley, where the usual summer throngs of tourists seeking the next wildlife photo op, crowding every turnout, pushing closer and closer toward sensitive and dangerous animals, are missing. You can be sure that Yellowstone’s diverse and spectacular wildlife do not miss the crowds nor the traffic – they have the summer valleys to themselves for the first time in memory. How I would love to see how the animals react to this absence of annoying bipeds our infernal machines.

Other parts of Yellowstone fared better and the southern loop road to Yellowstone Lake, Old Faithful, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Norris Geyser Basin will open June 22. The Northern Loop could open in early July. Vehicles will be able to enter the South, West and East entrances to the park. But the park will have a limited entry system based on vehicle license plate, to avoid completely overwhelming the remaining accessible sites.

Ongoing infrastructure projects in Yellowstone like replacing a bridge over the Yellowstone River near Tower and improving the Craig Pass road will likely be deferred or delayed as crews and resources are diverted to try and make roads passable.

The backcountry of Yellowstone is also currently closed, as is much of the nearby Custer Gallatin National Forest, including the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains, leaving vast areas of wilderness essentially free of humans in summer – an unheard-of prospect and a great relief to wildlife. Backcountry infrastructure like bridges, trails, campsites and trailheads – not to mention access roads – is no doubt in bad shape and will take months to assess and years to repair. And then what? When will the next, possibly worse, extreme flood occur?

Many of us living in the Yellowstone region recall the 1988 forest fires that burned over nearly 1/3 of Yellowstone Park and many surrounding areas. The fires of that season were immense, destructive and terrifying. Yet they did not damage nearly as much infrastructure as the 2022 floods. Those fires were probably fueled by climate change and should have been  a major alarm. Humans however seem to keep hitting the snooze button after wake-up calls from nature. This time will be no different – we will clean up and repair and continue with business as usual, burning lots of fossil fuel to fix what nature tried to reclaim and declaring (as Montana Governor Greg Gianforte, on holiday in Italy during the floods and unwilling to cut short his trip to deal with a massive disaster, said) “Montana is open for business.”

Accelerating climate change, fueled entirely by human consumption of coal, oil and natural gas, is producing ever more disastrous events like the Yellowstone floods. The 2021 Greater Yellowstone Climate Assessment predicted a “30-80% increase in spring precipitation” in Greater Yellowstone. Looks like that came true all at once. And the results are terrifying.

The last time there was this much carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere was 3.3 million years ago. At that time, there was no ice at the Earth’s poles!  We are in uncharted territory, burning through options as we delay and deny, politicians posturing and pretending as they slurp subsidies from the barons of oil, failing to take meaningful action to shore up the future from the coming chaos of runaway Greenhouse Effect.

Yellowstone is hardly the only place getting hammered by climate chaos. The American Southwest is baking in 110 degrees and no rain, with dust storms becoming the norm.  The Colorado River is drying Up.  Lake Powell is at 27% of capacity and Lake Meade at 28%. These reservoirs are the life blood of major cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas.  The Great Salt Lake is at a record low level and is at a tipping point where 1% more salinity could kill all the brine shrimp and sterilize the lake, a major stopover for migrating birds. Dust storms from the dry lake bed will bring toxic dust into Salt Lake City and the heavily populated Wasatch Front. Fires of course are breaking out everywhere with entire towns getting incinerated in Colorado, California, Oregon Washing ton and Montana the past year. Alaska is burning heavily already with tundra fires burning vast areas of the North Slope, and sea ice becoming a thing of the past. Fires are raging in New Mexico and Arizona. In the Southeastern US a record breaking heat wave is descending right now which will bring the heat index into uncharted territory in major cities like Atlanta and Charlotte and Nashville. India has just been through a massive killer heat wave, and Europe is baking in one of the worst heat waves ever seen there – temps nearing 40 degrees C (103 F) in France, and Spain is similarly hot – 10 degrees C above normal. Heat waves are the most deadly phenomenon of climate change – a 2003 heat wave in Europe killed 15,000 people.

We seem to assume things will stay as they are, that each catastrophe is a one-off and will not happen again nor will we be faced with a worse one. The Yellowstone floods have brought home how bad it can get and how quickly. Waters rose within minutes in many places, taking people by surprise and inundating areas viewed as above flood zones. Now we have a massive mess to clean up, an immense amount of repairs to do, and a large unemployed work force of guides (myself included), Park Service folks, restaurant and hotel employees, raft guides, bus drivers, etc. right at the start of what is usually the busiest season for the national parks. Add this massive layoff to the cost of repairs and the huge loss of tourism dollars. Catastrophes like the Yellowstone floods are extremely expensive and should be added to the cost/benefit analysis of development of existing and new fossil fuel sources.

The irony is not lost on me that my job and the tourism industry are heavily dependent on fossil fuels. On a typical day on the job as a Yellowstone tour guide I was driving about 240 miles with some days up to 400. So I realize I was contributing to the eventual demise of the place I love and work. Industrial tourism is one of many arms of the fossil fuel beast, burning up petrified swamps and dinosaur bones in a mad frenzy to do and see and consume the beauty and mystery of the vanishing natural world before it is gone. Eco-tourism as such does not really exist unless it is birding in your own back yard or walking local trails.

Thanks to a serious injury that sidelined my guiding career in May this year I have burned very little fossil fuel in the past 2 months. With oil corporations profiteering off the Ukraine war and gas around $5.00 per gallon, being sidelined is a bit of a relief and is saving my wife and I some serious money on gas (which is instead going to medical bills). Tour companies in Yellowstone and everywhere are raising rates as a necessity with fuel prices skyrocketing. The Covid 19 pandemic had already put a serious dent in tourism during the last 2 years  – I was out of work for 2 months in the spring of 2020. Yellowstone area tourism had rebounded quite a bit and was on track to be back to near record numbers – 4.5 million visitors per year. Now it’s all a big question how much the park can handle and how many people will still visit. And where will all those displaced visitors go? Other parks like Glacier and Grand Teton are guaranteed to get swamped with visitors.

Of course the federal government and state and local tourism promoters are hell bent on getting everything open as soon as possible. Most of Yellowstone will be up and running by early July, but the north and Northeast entrance roads are too heavily damaged and will require major work. Still, with Yellowstone such a major tourist draw all stops will be pulled out to get it back open, impacts and expense be damned.

Perhaps this would be a good time to take a pause and consider what we are doing. How should we approach preservation of iconic and imperiled landscapes like Yellowstone, part of the “last great intact temperate ecosystem”?  Is heavy duty tourism really the best way to interact with such places as Yellowstone Lake, Hayden Valley, Lamar Valley? Is unfettered tourism even sustainable? Are we killing the goose that laid the golden egg?

The Yellowstone floods may be a one-off or they may return this season or next spring. You can expect more of the same – or worse – in Yellowstone or any number of other locations. For instance, in Denali National Park in Alaska a big chunk of the only road into the park interior slid off a mountain recently (probably due to permafrost melting), and will require major repairs to access the campgrounds and resorts at Wonder Lake and Kantishna.

Anyone care to predict the next mega disaster caused by fossil fueled fools?

Phil Knight is an environmental activist in Bozeman, Montana. He is a board member of the Gallatin-Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance.