Climate Change in action: Visible signs in Black Hills & Yellowstone

50% to 100% Infestation rates from Mountain Pine Beetle in South Dakota's Black Hills

Disappearing forests in the Black Hills & parts of Wyoming

Shrinking glaciers High mountain glaciers receding fast in Wyoming's mountain ranges

Drought, heat and fire The vicious cycle of climate change

"We are at the point in the Black Hills where whole hillsides are dying and that is not the effect we want. The scale of dead stands has grown to be too big."

-Kurt Allen, Forest Service entomologist at Rapid City

Vacation 2012: "Climate change tourism?"

I expected to unplug and have a great time on our family summer vacation to the Black Hills, Yellowstone and the Tetons last week...and I did. What a great trip.

Huttners soak up Mt. Rushmore

What I did not expect was the stark level of evidence to climate changes since my last visit to Yellowstone National Park 18 years ago.

Here are a few observations from my travels out west last week.

Not your father's Black Hills:

Heading to Yellowstone from Minnesota almost inevitably includes a stop in the Black Hills near Rapid City, SD. Mt. Rushmore is every bit as majestic as I remember from 18 years ago, and I highly recommend a stop at Jewel Cave if you can squeeze it in.

The "Black Hills" earned the name from the darkly colored forests that are a stark contrast to the grassy, cream colored range lands of western South Dakota.

Thick stands of dark pine have covered the Black Hills for thousands of years.

This year, as I drove southwest from Rapid City, I was stunned to see huge tracts of dying forests and nealry naked hillsides.

Deforested hillside in the Black Hills.

Image Credit: Paul Huttner - MPR News

Kurt Allen, a Forest Service entomologist at Rapid City explains:

The first major outbreak occurred in 1997 in the Northern Hills by Sturgis, but the pine beetles did not stop there. They moved to the central hills and consumed a large portion in the Black Elk Wilderness, Harney Peak, and surrounding areas. As of 2006 about 30% of this area was affected. Forest Service scientists estimate that 50% of the wilderness area is infected. Kurt Allen, a Forest Service entomologist at Rapid City, said if this outbreak continues there is a chance of 100% mortality rate around Harney Peak.

Source: USDA

Arizona Flashback: Pine Mountain Beetle in action

During my 9 years in Arizona I watched over a million of acres of prime Ponderosa Pine go up in flames.

Like Arizona, the Black Hills are what you might call a "marginal climate zone." The "Hills" are just high enough, and get just enough winter snowfall and summer rain to produce impressive stands of pine on the mountainsides.

When the climate shifts, even a little, changes start to occur. The vicious cycle goes something like this.

1) Warmer temps and drought lead to less winter snowfall, earlier spring melt, and hotter drier summers.

2) Trees become stressed, and cannot fight off insect infestations like the Pine Mountain Beetle.

3) Massive stands of trees become infected and begin to die, creating hugs stands of dying, dry fire prone timber.

4) Fire sweeps through the area, and deforestation is the result.

We all know fire is part of forest ecology. But with climate changes, hotter temps, less precipitation and faster evaporation rates means what grows after the fires may not be the same as what was there before. The result in many areas is that the majestic pine forests may not be able to renew themselves, and a different "biome" evolves.

The Black Hills of South Dakota are now a living (and dying) laboratory to climate change. It remains to be seen if, or how quickly the large tracts of dead pine forests will be able to renew themselves, or if a hotter drier climate means more permanent changes.

Yellowstone & The Grand Tetons: Climate change in progress

I will be the first to say that Yellowstone & Grand Teton National parks are still totally amazing places to see, and I highly recommend anyone who hasn't been there to make the trip. The sheer natural beauty of these truly unique places is overwhelming.

Old Faithful puts on a show.

Image Credit: Paul Huttner - MPR News

The Yellowstone River winds through the Hayden Valley

Photo: Paul Huttner - MPR News

That said, there are visible changes occurring in Wyoming's mountains that are troubling...and are most likely the result of climate change.

From the drive into Yellowstone's east entrance near Cody, Wyoming...and throughout the park you can again see entire mountainsides full of dead tree stands.

Dead trees on Mt. Washburn in Yellowstone NP.

Image Credit: Paul Huttner-MPR News

36% of Yellwostone (793-thousand acres) burned in the massive fires of 1988. Subsequent fires have charred other areas of the park.

Some areas of the 1988 fire are seeing renewed growth 24 years later. Most notably the areas around the Firehole River Drive sports a nice stand of new pine forest over 6 feet tall in most areas. Other areas of the park have not been so quick to respond.

I had the opportunity to hike the 5+ mile round trip to the top of 10,243 foot Mt. Washburn in Yellowstone last week. (And yes, my legs paid the price for a couple of days) Seeing the huge stands of charred and dying trees leaves quite an impression on a meteorologist who has a fair amount of knowledge of evolving climate science.

High atop 10,243 foot Mt. Washburn

Photo: Paul Huttner - MPR News

Here's a breif synopsis of the (now very visible) changes occuring in Wyoming's high country and national parks.

Warmer temperatures and changes in the form, timing, and amount of precipitation are predicted to lead to earlier snowmelt, significant reductions in snowpack, and resulting summer drought in the western mountains by the middle of the 21st century.

1) Huge stands of dead trees that cover entire mountainsides. Some of this is Whitebark Pine, and it is disappearing at an alarming rate.

Whitebark pine has experienced a rapid and precipitous decline throughout its range due to nonnative white pine blister rust and native mountain pine beetles. A decrease in extremely cold winter temperatures due to climate change has apparently contributed to the longest, heaviest infestation of mountain pine beetle on record.

2) Many of the dead trees are the result of larger, more frequent fires in Yellowstone and other mountain ranges. A study done last year suggests this is the future of Yellowstone.

WxUnderground's Jeff Masters elaborates.

In a study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers have concluded that global warming could have a serious impact on the severity and frequency of wildfires in the Yellowstone region (an area where the states of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming come together). Historically in this region, fewer than 5% of wildfire occurrences account for 95% of the total area burned. But in a global warming scenario, they found that fire activity could become more severe and more frequent, causing the ecosystem to change dramatically.

What was once a low-probability event could become a high-probability event by mid-century. Fires that have only happened every 100 to 300 years in the past could now be occurring every 30 years in the future. The results of this research has implications for sub-alpine forests across the globe. Warming temperatures and decreasing humidity will lead to more wildfires, and will cost billions of dollars to fight them, if we choose to do so


Mt. Moran glaciers in the Tetons

Photo: Paul Huttner -MPR News

3) High mountain glaciers in Wyoming are melting at an increasingly rapid pace.

The glaciers of the Grand Tetons and Wind River Range have receded anywhere from 33% to 50% since 1950. High mountain glaciers can act as "thermostats" that keep mountain ranges cooler during summer months. That can protect nearby forests from excessive heat, and resulting disease and fires.

Studies suggest that some of Wyoming's glaciers may disappear by 2025.

Wikipedia seems to be a decent, cited resource here.

The semiarid climate of Wyoming still manages to support about a dozen small glaciers within Grand Teton National Park, which all show evidence of retreat over the past 50 years. Schoolroom Glacier is located slightly southwest of Grand Teton is one of the more easily reached glaciers in the park and it is expected to disappear by 2025.

Research between 1950 and 1999 demonstrated that the glaciers in Bridger-Teton National Forest and Shoshone National Forest in the Wind River Range shrank by over a third of their size during that period. Photographs indicate that the glaciers today are only half the size as when first photographed in the late 1890s. Research also indicates that the glacial retreat was proportionately greater in the 1990s than in any other decade over the last 100 years.

Gannett Glacier on the northeast slope of Gannett Peak is the largest single glacier in the Rocky Mountains south of Canada. It has reportedly lost over 50% of its volume since 1920, with almost half of that loss occurring since 1980. Glaciologists believe the remaining glaciers in Wyoming will disappear by the middle of the 21st century if the current climate patterns continue.

We hiked the Tetons above Jenny Lake last week. The Cascade Canyon trail offers incredible mountain views of the rugged Tetons. Think "Sound of Music" and you get the idea. The Tetons are the closest thing to the Alps we have in the USA. Simply stunning scenery.

Mt. Teewinot in the Tetons

Photo: Paul Huttner - MPR News

I was able to see the retreating glaciers on Teewinot and Mt. Moran up close last week. There is little doubt that the glaciers are retreating at am alarming rate. If current climate trends continue, I don't want to think about what they will look like in another 18 years.

The bottom line is this: Climate changes are all around us.

We are living witnesses to milder winters and warming temperatures in Minnesota, devastating "landscape changing" drought & fires (and "desertification"?) in Texas and Oklahoma. Massive fires sweeping through Colorado.

Now, some of our most prized national treasures like Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks are undergoing widespread climate changes that will alter the way we experience these astounding places in the future.


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