One of America’s iconic National Parks is feeling the heat from climate change. The results could trigger a dangerous cascade through the last (relatively) untouched pocket of wilderness in the United States.
Thirteen million years ago, the land of what is now Wyoming violently shook. All the shaking resulted in a tear in the earth along the earthquake’s fault line miles below. The land west of the fault line was lifted upward as the land east of the line sunk some 20,000 feet. The result of these vicious earthquakes is the Teton Mountain Range, the picturesque backbone of Grand Teton National Park, and the sunken valley containing Jackson Hole to the east.
But the craggy pinnacles of the soaring mountain range were not only created by tremors deep in the earth. Glaciers carved the mountains into the iconic, jagged shapes we see today over tens of thousands of years as they advanced and retreated. While the massive, canyon-carving glaciers have been gone for the past 10,000 years, many smaller glaciers formed in an extended cold period that lasted from 1400-1850. Today these small glaciers demonstrate how the park’s climate is changing.
Glaciers are a body of thick ice that slowly move as snow accumulates and compacts on mountains or near the poles. Logically, a warming climate would cause glaciers to melt. But another important factor is the rate and extent to which the Teton glaciers are shrinking. This is what researchers in the park’s Glacier Monitoring Project are trying to determine by mapping the retreat of the glaciers.
With the additional benefit of glacier data that dates back to the 1950s, the project has uncovered some startling trends as the ice continues to thaw. Overall, 25 percent of the total glacier cover has disappeared between 1967 and 2006. All seven of the park’s remaining glaciers have shrunk between the 1960s and 2010 and one glacier in particular, Teepe Glacier, lost 60 percent of its area over this period as summer temperatures continue to skyrocket. Teepe Glacier can be gone in as little as a decade as it has stopped moving, becoming a stranded snowball in a climate change-induced hell.
The Grand Teton glaciers may seem like a logical casualty of global warming, but that does not make their loss any less devastating. Besides their role in creating the iconic soaring peaks of the Tetons, the natural melting of the glaciers provides crucial cool water to downstream ecosystems. The park’s dozen or so native species of fish, from the mountain whitefish to the cutthroat trout, rely on the cool water from glacier melts. These fish control the insect population and provide food for a multitude of creatures, including bald eagles. Trout, in particular, bolster the park’s reputation as one of the premier trout fishing spots in the country. Once the glaciers are gone, will the park’s ecologically and economically vital native fish population disappear as well?
Climate change will not only expedite the melting of glaciers, but it will also continue to change the distribution of animal and plant species, altering the park’s ecosystems. For example, in Alaska’s Denali National Park, high-altitude Dall sheep have been forced to continuously climb higher into the mountains as their plants of choice are found only in increasingly higher altitudes due to the warming climate below. Eventually they may have nowhere else to go.
The Grand Teton National Park is such a crucial area to examine the effects of climate change because it constitutes a large swath of one of the last, relatively undisturbed areas of temperate wilderness in the world. Together with the nation’s first national park, Yellowstone, and a handful of protected forests and state areas, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem harkens back to a Western landscape nearly untouched by man. The ecosystems containing the world-famous natural phenomenons, like Yellowstone’s geysers and hot springs that helped it achieve the distinction as the world’s first national park, flow seamlessly into the ecosystems surrounding the iconic Tetons to the south. Together this connected web of wilderness encompasses some 20 million acres of habitat for iconic species, from bison to grizzly bears.
Grand Teton National Park, in particular, is located in the rugged heart of this undisturbed wilderness and acts as an ark for animal species that once inhabited most of the western United States. The park contains 18 species of carnivore, 7 hoofed mammals, 5 amphibian species, 300 birds and 900 species of flowers that splatter the alpine meadows with color each spring. The full reach of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem even stretches farther than the three states (Idaho, Montana and Wyoming) that it officially spans. The Swainson’s hawk that resides here in the summer travels all the way down to South America each winter.
Grand Teton National Park is also the summer destination of one of the continent’s last great mammal migrations. As the snow begins to retreat north at the beginning of spring, hundreds, even thousands, of pronghorn antelopes begin the 100 mile-plus journey north from their wintering grounds in the Upper Green River Valley in central Wyoming to Jackson Hole.
With large organs to aid air intake and padded feet, pronghorn antelopes are the second fastest land animal on the planet, capable of reaching speeds of 60 miles per hour. These incredible speeds easily outpace any living predator in North America. The only creature that could ever keep up with the pronghorn was a prehistoric North American cheetah that pursued ancient pronghorns here millions of years ago. The pronghorns outlasted the cheetah and have been traversing this migration path for some 6,000 years. However, their migration is becoming more strenuous as several areas along their route are claimed for large-scale energy development. Large swaths of protected wilderness are vital to help pronghorns continue their incredible migration for thousands of years to come.
In such a complex collection of ecosystems that comprise the Grand Teton National Park, one species disappearing could have unforeseen consequences throughout the environment. For example, in nearby Yellowstone, the removal of wolves through decades of hunting interestingly led to the near disappearance of the park’s beavers.
So what was the connection between wolves and beavers? With the wolves eradicated, the population of elk skyrocketed. The unnaturally large population of elk heavily browsed young willow plants, which served as the beaver’s lifeline during the winter months. The return of wolves to the park in 1995 helped dent the large elk population and disperse them throughout the park, saving the willows from over-browsing and resulting in larger beaver populations. Moreover, the more robust beaver population caused improved hydrology of the streams where they lived. Their dams store water and help remove some of the seasonal runoff into the streams.
The Grand Teton National Park is an incredible habitat for dozens of species which represent the last vestiges of a bygone era before the west was settled. Huge herds of bison roam the plains, nonchalantly crossing a highway, indifferent to the automobiles and pavement beneath them. Their incredibly brawny frames illustrate the defiance of the natural world as they lumber across the road. It is one of the last places where you need to worry about both the mother grizzly and the territorial bull moose.
But physical signs of man’s quest to conquer nature still are evident here, none more iconic than the Moulton Barn. The wooden barn is perhaps the most picturesque barn in the world with the jagged peaks of the Tetons as its backdrop. It has come to symbolize the inclusion of humans in the western landscape, a trend that began when settlers rushed to grab any parcel of land they could over a century ago.
Today, the signs of man’s relationship with nature are becoming more and more evident as the glaciers in the Tetons continue to melt. This will cause ripples in the park’s ecosystems, already complex and fragile. Each species plays a major role for the rest of the ecosystem, as the wolves in Yellowstone illustrate. As the climate continues to warm, whole ecosystems can vanish in one of the world’s last great wildernesses.