YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK - Most of us know that Yellowstone National Park is a giant volcanic caldera, but it might be better to think of it as a 2.2 million acre water tank.
“It’s a time of year most people never see and don't think about,” said Ann Rodman, Yellowstone GIS Specialist, explaining the winter season. “And so the amount of snow we have and the amount of snow we store over the winter affects everything going into the spring, the summer and even into next year.”
This winter has been good for the snowpack with some higher elevations seeing as much as nearly double the amount seen on average -- but that's this year.
“You've got to differentiate between weather and climate and you hear that all the time,” said Rodman. “Weather is what's happening this year, what this snowpack is like this year. But climate is if you give something 30 years or longer and you start to see a trend or an average over that period of time. You've got to pay attention to that as well.”
While most of us think of Yellowstone National Park as a summer visit to a geyser and a chance to see a grizzly bear, in reality, most of what happens in Yellowstone is happening right now.
The snow falling in the mountains is building snowpack that will ultimately become the Gallatin, the Madison, the Yellowstone - all rivers with their beginnings in the park.
Just like the frozen Undine Falls, the snowpack sits and waits until the spring thaw to release its potential.
However, research that's been going on in Yellowstone for more than 40 years is telling us the waterfall will thaw much earlier in the spring and it won’t freeze until much later next fall.
“When you look at that, the trend over time is decreasing snowpack all over the whole, in fact, the whole ecosystem,” said Rodman. “I don't think there's anywhere in the ecosystem where we have an increasing snowpack over time.”
Rodman says that kind of change, as much as 30 days shorter in some places, will have an impact on the entire park over time. Changes in vegetation change food for grazing animals. Warmer water temperatures change fisheries. All that changes predatory hunting options.
The good news? Yellowstone being what it is, top to bottom, helps the ecosystem weather the changing climate.
“The ecosystem is pretty resilient, I think because we have such varying topography and huge elevation differences,” said Rodman. “So we have lots of different ecosystems, micro-climates, all of that."
"I think that allows, as we go forward and things are changing, it allows plants and animals to adapt to these micro-systems. There are a lot of them all around different aspects different elevations, those types of things. If we were in the Midwest and it was flat it would be a much different looking forward into the future," Rodman added.
He also says Yellowstone’s shorter winters could also affect the summer fire season - however, the weather also plays a primary role in fire in the park.