The weather in Yellowstone National Park could feel more like that of Los Angeles in 60 years if climate change continues to accelerate, according to a new report released Tuesday.
Under that "medium high" climate change scenario, the average summer temperature in the nation's first national park would rise by 9.7 degrees by 2070.
Stephen Saunders of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, lead author of the report that was underwritten by the Bozeman-based Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said "9.7 degrees of additional heat would totally transform the ecosystem."
Even under conservative climate change models, the temperature in Yellowstone could rise by 5.6 degrees in 60 years, Saunders said.
The calculations were based on data collected from weather stations around the Greater Yellowstone Area, a patchwork of several national forests, one national wildlife refuge, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Predictions of what could happen were based on a data set of climate models developed for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fourth Assessment Report released in 2007.
Even under a more conservative study completed in 2009 by Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences for the Environmental Protection Agency, a modest 3-degree warming scenario by 2050 would create a 200 percent increase in wildfire areas burned and an 80 percent increase in air pollution from fires.
In GYC's "Yellowstone in Peril" report, some of the scenarios possible under rising temperatures include shorter winters and therefore less winter recreation and less spring runoff; fewer species such as lynx, pikas and wolverines that rely on deep snowpack to survive; and a decline in forest health and possible loss of species such as aspen.
Perhaps Yellowstone's greatest contribution to reducing greenhouse gases is to serve as a classroom to draw greater attention to the problem of climate change and how to solve it, Saunders said.
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Places like Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, which draw millions of national and international tourists each summer, can tell the story of how to reduce emissions and why it's important, Saunders said.
To help the parks and national forests fund such educational projects, as well as to reduce their own emissions, Saunders advocated returning portions of some fees to the federal land management agencies.
Some federal agencies have already gotten ahead of the problem. The Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee, a coalition of federal land management agencies, released its report this spring on plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a minimum of 20 percent in the next decade. The measures include everything from more teleconference calls to cut down on travel to installing new roofs and new windows in buildings to reduce heating and cooling costs.
"A large part of the power and promise of this initiative is the example that it sets for what can be done when separate organizational entities work together across a large area to respond to complex problems like climate change," the report said.
Some impacts from climate change are already showing up, said GYC's Scott Christensen. He pointed to the decline in whitebark pine trees, a key food for grizzly bears, as just one example.
By protecting the Greater Yellowstone Area, he said, there would be ripple effects, such as preservation of important wildlife migration corridors that may be important as climate conditions change. Projects like removing nonnative lake trout to ensure a healthy stock of native Yellowstone cutthroat trout could help the fish battle increased stress as water quality is diminished or water temperatures warm.
"There are definite advantages for Yellowstone National Park compared to other places in the West," he said.