Flooding in Yellowstone Nationwide Park is an indication of what lies forward for nationwide parks

GARDINER, Mont. — Before the Manning family evacuated their rented cabin on the edge of Yellowstone National Park, they watched as a nearby home plunged from the riverbank into the raging, flood-swollen waters.

“The soil from the shore was coming off in sheets,” said Parker Manning, who traveled to Yellowstone with his family from Terre Haute, Indiana, for a summer vacation.

“It was crazy when the house, when the building finally hit the water,” Mr. Manning said. “It was floating down the river like a boat.”

The floods that ravaged Yellowstone this week altered the course of rivers, ripped out bridges, poured through homes and forced the evacuation of thousands of visitors from the nation’s oldest national park.

It’s difficult to directly link the damage in Yellowstone to a rapidly warming climate — rivers have been flooded for millennia — but scientists are sounding the alarm that climate change-related destruction will reach nearly all 423 national parks in the coming years , which are particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures.

The litany of threats reads like a biblical reckoning: fire and flood, melting ice sheets, rising seas and heat waves.

Rangers at Glacier National Park in Montana are counting down the years until the park will be glacier-free.

The cacti in Arizona’s Saguaro National Park, icons of the harsh, arid west with spiky arms reaching out for the bright blue desert sky, are dying from the heat.

Extreme heat is also a big problem at Joshua Tree National Park, where scientists are contemplating a future in which the park would be largely stripped of the trees it is named after.

Joshua trees are dying from both rising temperatures and wildfires. A fire at nearby Mojave National Preserve in 2020 killed 1.3 million trees, prompting the park administration to designate an area as the “Graveyard of Joshua tree skeletons.”

Climate change has increased temperatures in the United States. But because so many national parks are located at high elevations, in the arid southwest or in the Arctic, they are disproportionately affected by global warming. A 2018 study found that temperatures in national parks are rising twice as fast as across the country.

“Every one of our more than 400 national parks is suffering,” said Stephanie Kodish, director of climate change programs at the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit and nonpartisan advocacy group.

Ms Kodish said the culprit of extreme weather in most cases is clear: Man-made temperature rises are destroying the very places Americans saw as pristine refuges from the busy and built-up landscapes of their daily lives.

“We’re literally making a choice to erase those things that are jewels of our world, that are gifts to give,” she said.

Climate change-related damage occurs from Florida to Alaska.

In Everglades National Park, the vast wetlands southwest of Miami, rising sea levels are causing groundwater salinity and endangering tropical orchids and other endangered wildlife.

Wildfires are a constant threat during the summer months in and around Yosemite National Park, the jewel of the Sierra Nevada. In recent years, visitors to the popular park have driven through vast landscapes of charred tree stumps. Park rangers have also been faced with freak weather conditions they’ve never experienced before: In January last year, gusts swept through a grove of giant sequoias and uprooted 15 mature trees, destroying recently constructed visitor facilities.

Wildfires in the past two years also killed thousands of giant sequoias in nearby Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.

The National Park Service is experimenting with ways to adapt to the changing climate. The federal infrastructure law passed last year earmarks $1.7 billion for national parks, including money for climate protection projects such as moving hiking trails out of flood plains. Other efforts include Glacier National Park biologists relocating bull trout to cooler temperature waters, and Joshua Tree National Park workers removing scrub and invasive species from cooler or wetter areas that Joshua trees are more likely to sustain. In Yosemite, rangers clear forests to reduce the risk of wildfires.

Ms Kodish said polls by the National Parks Conservation Association showed strong bipartisan support for protecting the park system, which she described as “American as apple pie”.

Americans, she said, could change their everyday choices to fight climate change and protect parks: Dry laundry on a clothesline instead of in the dryer. Take public transport. Call on your local leaders to move the country away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy.

“People have memories of visiting these places,” she said. “They see them as the lifeblood of our democracy, as places they have set aside for the general public – for us, for our children, for our grandchildren – to enjoy.”

In Yellowstone, researchers expect an increase in fires, dying forests, expanding grasslands, more invasive plants, and shallower, warmer waterways.

This week’s flooding will cut off the northern reaches of the park, one of the country’s most-visited natural wonders, from tourists for the remainder of the busy summer travel season. And officials warned more rain and flooding could be on the way.

By Wednesday morning, dark skies had cleared in Livingston, Mont., a city of about 8,000 that serves as the main northern gateway to Yellowstone.

The entire park will remain closed for about a week while authorities deal with damaged roads and collapsed bridges, Cam Sholly, the park’s superintendent, said in a news conference late Tuesday. But the entrances to the northern part of Yellowstone, near Livingston and smaller tourist-dependent towns, will likely remain inaccessible until around Halloween.

Mr Sholly described the flooding and mudslides, caused by four days of record rain and melting snow, as a “millennial event, whatever that means these days”.

“They seem to be becoming more common,” he said, estimating that at least 10,000 people were visiting when the evacuations began.

Millions of tourists are drawn each year to Yellowstone’s wilderness and active geysers, which spread over more than two million acres in the northwest corner of Wyoming and into Montana and Idaho. In 2021, more than 4.8 million people visited, a significant increase over previous years.

The storm that caused the flooding and mudslides this week began with two to three inches of rain over the weekend. The rain, combined with warming temperatures that melted 5.5 inches of snow, caused the flood.

Hundreds of homes were flooded in communities north of the park in Montana, including Gardiner and Cooke City, which were also cut off from supplies of food and clean water, officials said. Flooding has knocked out the water works in the state’s largest city, Billings, leaving residents with less than two days of supplies. On Wednesday, Montana’s lieutenant governor called for a presidential declaration of a major disaster.

Ominously, some forecasts point to more warmth and rain in four to five days, even if another foot of snow remains on Yellowstone’s mountains, raising the possibility of another series of floods, Mr. Sholly said.

Bill Berg, one of three commissioners in Park County, Mont., said he’s concerned a number of hotels and restaurants in the area may shut down as the park’s north entrance is closed for the season. Most companies make most of their money during the summer, he said.

He said this week’s flooding was by far the worst he’d seen in the area in 50 years. He watched the river swell and carry mature trees downstream. On Wednesday, he stood on the riverbank and inventoried the debris left behind: piles of wood, pillows, toys, closets and a lone cross-country ski.

“It was snowing and roaring,” he said from his home in Gardiner. “Mother Nature, she doesn’t mess around.”

Reporting was provided by Alex Traub, Livia Albeck-Ripka, Henry Fountain and Christine Hauser. Alain Delaquérière made a research contribution.

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