Disaster in Yellowstone Park: 20 years after the fires, it’s healing

September 17, 2008

High school students weren’t alive when Yellowstone burned in 1988. Do you remember?

NASA infrared satellite photograph of Yellowstone fires in 1988

NASA infrared satellite photograph of Yellowstone fires in 1988

It was a conflagration that made hell look like good picnicking. 1988 was a particularly dry summer, and hot. Lightning and human carelessness ignited fires across western North America. Five huge fires raged out of control, and burned huge swaths out of forests in Yellowstone National Park that probably hadn’t seen fire in 80 years, maybe longer.

The Salt Lake Tribune featured several stories about the fires and Yellowstone’s recovery today, “Yellowstone: Back from the ashes,” how wildland firefighting changed, a great chart on fire succession stages, and another chart on the effects of the fire on larger animals in the Yellowstone system.

Old Faithfull erupts against background of smoke from 1988 fires - NPS photo by Deanna Marie Dulen

Old Faithfull erupts against background of smoke from 1988 fires - NPS photo by Deanna Marie Dulen

The 1988 fires made history in several ways; it was the first time so many fires had burned simultaneously. Ultimately some of the fires merged into even greater conflagrations. The fires forced the shutdown of tourism and other activities in the Park. Inadequacies in fire fighting equipment, staffing and policies were highlighted and displayed in newspapers and on television for weeks, forcing changes in policies by cities, states and the federal government.

Some good came out of the fires. Much undergrowth and dead wood had choked off plant diversity in some places in the Park. The fires opened new meadows and offered opportunities for some species to expand their ranges.

Scientifically, a lot of information came out of the fires. The mystery of when aspen would seed out was solved — new aspen seedlings appeared in areas where the fires had sterilized the ground with extremely high temperatures that seemed to trigger the seeds to germinate.

Our visits in 1989 offered a lot of opportunities to look at very bleak landscapes.

Yellowstone National Park in 1989, a year after the big fires - Copyright 1989 and 2008, Ed Darrell

Yellowstone National Park in 1989, a year after the big fires - Copyright 1989 and 2008, Ed Darrell

Recover of the forested areas began rather quickly, but will take time to cover over all the scars of the fires.

Other resources:

Annals of Global Warming: Plants refuse to listen to climate change skeptics

March 22, 2008

March 20 brought the Spring equinox, but our daffodils have been up for a couple of weeks. Spring comes a little earlier every year.

That fact, and news stories like these below must cause great angst in the bowels of the offices of U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and other places climate change deniers hold sway. One can almost imagine some poor sap of a Coburn minion laboring away long into the night trying to devise legislation that will prevent Canadian thistles, redbuds, marigolds, wheat, soybeans and corn from reading about climate change or going to see Al Gore’s movie, and getting the wrong ideas.

I hope that minion is imaginary.

Here’s story #1: The Tuesday Science Section of the New York Times carried a story by Jim Robbins, “In a Warmer Yellowstone Park, a Shifting Environmental Balance.” Longtime readers probably know of my deep affection and ties to Yellowstone and the Mountain West. So of course this story catches my eye.

Robbins details an interesting set of changes being studied by Robert L. Crabtree, who is “chief scientist with the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center in Bozeman, Montana”: Invasive Canadian thistle, an exotic weed harries cattlemen throughout the world for the ways it destroys pasture land; despite its name, this thistle is an exotic from Asia, accidentally introduced to the Americas. The Lamar Valley in Yellowstone, formerly a wetland, continues to dry as a result of rising temperatures and lack of usual rainfall (a predicted effect of global climate change). Canadian thistle loves drying wetlands, and has invaded along the Lamar River. Officials fought the invasion for several years, but the fight seems lost.

The changes are dramatic, to observant ecologists:

Enter the pocket gopher, a half-pound dynamo that tunnels into the ground near the surface. The gophers love the abundant, starchy roots of the plant and burrow beneath it to harvest the tubers. What they do not eat they stockpile under plants or rocks.

The expansion of pocket gophers and thistle is not gradual, Dr. Crabtree said, but a rapid positive-feedback loop. As the gophers tunnel, they churn surface soil and create a perfect habitat for more thistle. In other words, the rodents help spread the plant. And more plants, in turn, lead to more pocket gophers.

“The pocket gophers are unconsciously farming their own food source,” said Dr. Crabtree. Their numbers here have tripled since the late 1980s, he said.

For their part, grizzly bears have discovered the gophers’ caches and raid them. As a result, the Lamar Valley is pockmarked with holes where grizzlies have clawed up bundles of roots. Bears also devour gophers and their pups.

Dr. Crabtree thinks the bears started feeding in earnest on the new food source in 2004 — a poor year for another bear staple, the white bark pine nut. Now, he adds, they seem to be eating the gophers and roots more routinely.

Tom Oliff, chief scientist for Yellowstone, confirms that the growing season for the park has expanded 20 days a year since the mid-1990s, which may explain the spread of Canada thistle. Mr. Oliff said the park reduced control efforts because evidence showed that the plant ebbed and flowed and that the range would probably shrink on its own.

One doesn’t have to be a fan of the Craigheads or a biologist to be dimly aware that the Yellowstone ecosystems are intensely studied and intensely threatened. Climate change played a contributing role in the cataclysmic fires in the park in 1988; reintroduction of wolves still sparks some controversy, though the return of a top predator has already produced other dramatic changes in Yellowstone ecosystems. Yellowstone is home and refuge to a wild bison herd, and beautiful and unique — generally revered as a “crown jewel” of America’s features.

Nor does one need to be a climate scientist to recognize the signs of warming listed in the article, and the dangers that are implied: Drying wetlands, invasive species, dying traditional foodstocks for grizzlies, population explosions that almost always are a symptom of serious trouble in an ecosystem.

So I was surprised, dumbfounded even, to see The Unbearable Nakedness of CLIMATE CHANGE claim this as a good story. Why?

Something absolutely unheard-of before: an entire New York Times article talking about Global Warming but… with no hint of impending doom or catastrophes:

In a Warmer Yellowstone Park, a Shifting Environmental Balance by Jim Robbins – published: March 18, 2008

Destruction of wetlands, displacement of native species, upset of the ecological apple cart — and this is “no hint of impending doom?” (While you’re at the NY Times site, also see this story, about how warmer temperatures threaten the grizzly.)

Here’s story #2:

Cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., now appear weeks earlier than they used to. April 5 was the date of the debut of the blossoms 30 years ago, according to a story at National Public Radio, but they are out already and will have peaked by the end of March this year.

Washington’s blossomless Cherry Blossom Festivals (the dates for the festival have not kept pace) provide one more indicator that spring comes earlier. A geographer from Virginia Tech, Kirsten de Beurs, uses remote sensing satellite data to look at the dates plants spring forth, and has determined that spring is moving up 8 hours every year. (Go to the NPR site and listen to the story.) (This science is called “phenology,” the study of the timing of biological phenomena.)

Here’s the problem for climate change deniers: How can they convince the birds, bees, grizzlies, and especially the trees and flowers, that they shouldn’t be acting as if the climate were changing? How can the climate change skeptics get the Canadian thistles to stop invading, the Japanese blossoming cherry trees in the Tidal Basin to delay their blossoms, the bluegrass of Kentucky to delay its greening, the prairies of Kansas to delay the wildflowers and grasses?

Have all those plants been suckered in by Al Gore’s movie? Don’t those plants know that Anthony Watts has shown that the weather measuring stations across the U.S. are placed wrongly, and so there cannot be warmer weather?

Church authorities got Galileo to lie low on the issue of heliocentricity centuries ago; but according to the legend, as he left the room where he had agreed to keep quiet, he muttered, “but still, it moves,” referring to the motion of the Earth about the Sun. This is the problem of the climate change deniers: Still, the climate changes.

Canute couldn’t command the tides not to flow; climate change deniers cannot command the flowers not to bloom. That force that through the green fuse drives the flower? It’s the destroyer of skepticism, too. Climate change skeptics curse it today.


Satellite photo composite: “Land surface phenologies across CONUS in 2000 revealed by hree AVHRR biweekly composites.” From USA National Phenology Network (USANPN)
  • Project Budburst: You can be a citizen scientist, and help climatologists and geographers map the coming of spring. Details here. Contact Barron Orr at the University of Arizona, barron@email.arizona.edu.


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