I was recently speaking with Jeff Olsen, a former park ranger turned tour guide, at Grand Teton National Park. As we cruised around in his big truck looking for the elusive wildlife, he pointed out the destructive role of Instagram in attracting hordes of people to iconic (and not so iconic) locations in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park. His insights were sobering and prompted no small amount of self-reflection on my part.
Like many of those tourists, I have found myself making a beeline to these two National Parks — after all, there are a short flight away from San Francisco. They give me a chance to explore the landscape in search of visual Zen. While I may not be looking for the perfect selfie, I am seeking the unique splendor of these sacred places. But such opportunities may be dwindling. The harsh reality is that these beautiful environments might be vanishing right before our eyes (or maybe right behind our Instagram filters).
The influx of self-interested visitors comes at a particularly fragile time. A new research report offers a very sobering assessment of the harsh reality of the Yellowstone ecosystem. “The climate assessment says that temperatures in the park are now as high or higher as during any period in the last 20,000 years and are very likely the warmest in the past 800,000 years,” writes Adam Popescu for Yale Environment 360. Some salient findings:
- Since 1950, Yellowstone experienced an average temperature increase of 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit, the most pronounced warming occurring at elevations above 5,000 feet.
- Peak annual stream runoff is eight days earlier than in 1950.
- Annual snowfall has declined by nearly two feet since 1950.
No matter how much deniers remain willfully blind to the realities of climate change, the facts can’t be ignored. We have record heat waves in the Western and the Southwestern United States. Two photographer friends based in Jackson Hole recently pinged me about temperatures in the upper 90s, sharing photos of Tetons without snow — a surreal sight.
And as Popescu writes, if the current trends stay intact, this could become a norm for “towns and cities in the Greater Yellowstone Area — including Bozeman, Montana and Jackson, Pinedale, and Cody, Wyoming” who will see up to 60 days of temperatures above 90 degrees. In my numerous photography trips, I have learned a lot about the ecosystem’s delicate balance. This heat will disrupt the food chain, and the effects on wildlife and nature are going to be devastating.
Photography has significantly enhanced my understanding of nature and the world around me. As someone who grew up in a densely populated city, I only awakened to my environmental responsibility about a decade ago. When placing myself in the context of our planet, I have become acutely aware of my impact and my subsequent responsibilities. Both in my daily life and when I’m traveling, I do what I can to make sure someone else in the future will have a chance to enjoy nature’s bounty as much as I have in my recent years.
I have a deep fondness for national parks and none more than the Yellowstone. This new report makes me fearful for what awaits us. Here are a handful of photos from Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons of what we might lose due to accelerated climate change.
June 28, 2021. San Francisco.