Yellowstone National Park: Global Warming’s Version of CliffsNotes

Candice Gaukel Andrews April 17, 2012 17

As kettle ponds in Yellowstone National Park shrink, trumpeter swan numbers drop. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

With piles of popular articles on the subject and decades of research behind us, you’d think we’d all be experts on global warming by now, right? But it turns out that half of the adults in the United States would probably earn an F on a pop quiz about climate change.

According to a study conducted by University of Wisconsin geography fellow Jennifer Marion, with researchers at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, nearly 70 percent of us believe, for instance, that banning aerosol spray cans will reduce global warming. (It won’t.)

There’s hope, however, for the majority of us that seem to have tuned out the dire news regarding the reams of scientific studies that support the fact that our planet is becoming dangerously warmer. That hope comes in the form of Yellowstone National Park: a visual-learner’s CliffsNotes on global warming.

Longer growing seasons alter elk migrations, making the animals avoid higher elevations where they can shelter from predators. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Half the class—52 percent—failed the exam

A recent survey conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication asked U.S. adults ages 18 and older about the causes, impacts and potential solutions related to global warming and how our climate system works. Just 8 percent had enough knowledge to earn a grade of A or B on the set of questions. And while 63 percent believe that global warming is real and happening, 49 percent incorrectly think that the space program contributes to it, 47 percent erroneously say that fossil fuels are the fossilized remains of dinosaurs, and 42 percent are convinced that since scientists can’t predict the weather more than a few days in advance, they can’t possibly foretell the climate of the future.

Field trip: Yellowstone National Park

While seeing how we did as a nation on this type of “reading test” is alarming, we also recognize that not everyone is a traditional learner. And that’s where Yellowstone National Park may come to the rescue with an alternative teaching technique.

During the past 100 years, average annual temperatures throughout Yellowstone have risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit, which is nearly two times faster than global temperatures have risen in the same period. So while many scientists around the world study computerized climate-change models in a laboratory, a visit to Yellowstone provides an in-your-face look at climate change, in the real world.

The park’s 2.2 million acres account for one of the few places left in the Lower 48 states where the impacts of humankind remain light and where the ecosystem is still relatively intact. It’s a natural laboratory in an almost-original state.

The ice fields in Montana’s Glacier National Park may be gone by the end of the decade.

The effects of global warming are seen almost everywhere you look in Yellowstone. Many pines stand out as rusty, brown sticks against a backdrop of colorful meadows and green mountains. Warmer winters have allowed mountain pine beetles—which infest the trees and kill them—to proliferate, moving from the lower lodgepole pine areas to whitebark pine in the higher elevations. The invasive insects have been able to travel to the higher altitudes because rising temperatures protect their larvae from freezing.

In other parts of the park, trees are marching into Yellowstone’s meadows, filling in open areas that are critical for deer and elk. And since green growth triggers the elk and deer migrations, biologists worry that longer growing seasons could keep the animals from moving to higher elevations where they find shelter from predators. As warmer temperatures cause kettle ponds in the park to shrink, trumpeter swan numbers drop—in fact, the birds’ population numbers are at their lowest level in 80 years. Nine swans were counted in 2010, which marks a 73 percent decrease during the past decade and the fewest since surveys began in 1931.

Playing hooky can be good for the planet

Experts now say that the ice fields at Glacier National Park in Montana may be gone by the end of the decade. The namesake plant at Joshua Tree National Park in California is disappearing, as are the tall trees in the state’s Redwoods National Park. And increasing hurricane intensity and frequency are damaging portions of Everglades National Park in Florida.

But as the world’s first national park, Yellowstone is probably the one that most Americans hold dearest. And therein lies its power. It may be that traveling to this icon of our nation will convey the perils of global warming more than reading any amount of scientific data ever could.

Have you witnessed any signs of global warming in the natural places where you live? Does that make the dangers of climate change feel more real to you?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Fatima November 15, 2012 at 9:23 am - Reply

    Obama science adviser John Holdren proposed blasting sulphate particles
    into the atmosphere to block the rays of the sun. It is predicted that “global warming” will increase water shortages in the near future.
    Therefore, these lights are the best option for saving energy and the
    global environment from global warming.

  2. JR April 23, 2012 at 6:57 am - Reply

    I share current events and controversy with my AP Environmental students. For some, they get it, for others…..

  3. Amanda April 18, 2012 at 10:50 am - Reply

    Thank you so much for sharing the insight into Yellowstone’s possible impact as a “poster child” displaying the dangerous effects of climate change on natural ecosystems. I agree with R.S. that with the age of information, you would assume more would be educated on the subject, but I guess that information has more power in some people’s minds than the truth.

  4. David H. April 18, 2012 at 10:44 am - Reply

    An excellent article, Candice. Let me also suggest that the Columbia Icefields in Alberta, Canada provide visitors a dramatic demonstration of global warming. I live in the southwest where the evidence of climatic change is a bit more subtle, but there is plenty of it for the careful observer.

    I appreciated your mention of the melting icefields Glacier National Park. Since my first visit to Glacier, roughly forty years ago, I can attest to the dramatic changes that have occurred in those mountains.

  5. Mike April 18, 2012 at 10:41 am - Reply in todays NYT it appears that many people have reached the tipping point. In fact, one problem we have is getting meteorologists on board.

  6. Wendy Worrall Redal April 18, 2012 at 10:25 am - Reply

    Here’s a little better news about improvement in the public’s understanding of climate change: Let’s hope every increment helps!

  7. Candice Gaukel Andrews April 18, 2012 at 9:19 am - Reply


    Thanks for writing. Agreed. The ice fields are in Glacier, not Yellowstone – as the article states. And local indicators, such as regional plants moving north to places they were never historically in, is a sign of a warming planet. (

    Thanks again for your comment.


  8. John Colwell April 18, 2012 at 7:36 am - Reply

    The warmest March in perhaps 80 years is not an example of climate change. It is an example of weather change for March.
    And after all, the previous warmest March was that March perhaps
    80 years ago, certainly before there were any putative indications of global warming.
    BTW, you can not find global change in any local region (natural area), only a local change. Other places may be getting colder.
    And the ice fields are in Glacier, not Yellowstone.
    Trying hard to find examples tht fit your hypothesis is not science.
    Trying to find examples that DON’T fit your hypothesis is the essence of science.
    Other than that, a nice read.

  9. Emily April 18, 2012 at 7:01 am - Reply

    Thank You Candice for posting this article. I will be sharing on other sites.

  10. Mike L. April 18, 2012 at 7:00 am - Reply

    Thank you for sharing this. We may not be experts, but we should be informed. It is so bad when cultural groups like political parties and religious groups choose to ignore science.

  11. Ken April 18, 2012 at 6:59 am - Reply

    Thanks for the article. It’s unfortunate that many of the wild places that are relatively unspoiled by humans are taking the brunt of changes associated with climate change. My family is actually planning on going to Yellowstone this summer, but we may have to extend our trip into Glacier National Park to see the park’s namesakes before they are gone.

  12. Joanne April 18, 2012 at 6:59 am - Reply

    This year we had record high temperatures in March, which plummeted to freezing temperatures, then like night turns to day, we finally went back into summer temperatures recently. What happened to spring. Just as similar, winter this year was almost non-existent, I can’t remember that we had a real snow storm. Last winter we were buried with power outages. That is our local real world evidence.
    I think people are becoming more aware that there are unusual changes. I haven’t been to Yellowstone in many years, but I know people would agree as another parking lot heaves up and falls off there that the constant small earthquakes and changes in the time of Old Faithful, there could definitely be concern for further monitoring.
    Speaking of this, Merle Streep narrates a new movie that is bringing climate change awareness to the forefront.
    “Polar Bears On Thin Ice”, a new IMAX movie.

  13. R.S. April 18, 2012 at 6:57 am - Reply

    Candice Thank you so much for sharing this. I wish more were aware of these facts.

  14. Mary Brenner April 18, 2012 at 5:47 am - Reply

    Thoughtfully written. What an excellent reading assignment for a high student. I wonder how many others have also visited Yellowstone and taken similar pictures of the ice fields over the years. They could easily compare them for a personal visual.

  15. Art Hardy April 17, 2012 at 9:38 am - Reply

    Lots of examples of global warming, especially this year, one of the warmest (and shortest) winters on record. After a particularly warm March grapes at a local winery had started to bud and then were affected by a recent cold snap.

  16. Bruce Johnson April 17, 2012 at 7:39 am - Reply

    Thank You. I will share this.


Leave A Response »