Yellowstone Geo Blogs

Climate Chronicles - Local Evidence

The earth's climate has changed often since the Earth formed some 4.5 billion years ago.  Our northern Rocky Mountain location has at various times in earth history been a humid tropical paradise, a sahara-like desert, and at other times a year-round frigid winterscape.  Does that mean that the global warming we are seeing today is simply a normal trend of changing climate?  Let's explore the question.

Cyclical Climate Change
Paleoclimate research is the study of past climates and is critical to understanding how our climate is changing today. The study of deep ocean and terrestrial lake sediment cores, ice cores from continental and alpine glaciers, pollen studies, geochemical analyses, and a host of other research tools help to determine past climates and atmospheric composition.  It is clear that the climate changes, but what causes it and how fast does climate change occur?

A complex cycle of the Earth's orbit around the sun involving the tilt of the earth and the shape and timing of the orbit, known as the Milankovich cycle, has roughly predicted natural cycles of glaciation and interglacial or warming periods over millions of years.  The tilt of the earth and the distance from the sun has a great influence on solar insolation, the radiation affecting the earth's surface.  Other factors affect the glacial cycle as well, but the Milankovich cycle is considered a "forcing" dynamic on glacial and interglacial periods.

nasaTempTemperature data from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) indicating the sudden rise in global average temperature since the late nineteenth century.At the end of the Pleistocene glaciation, 15,000 to 12,000 years ago, temperatures rose gradually over several thousand years to a maximum (approximately 7500 to 4500 years ago) known as the Holocene Climate Optimum (HCO).  The average temperature was a mere 1-2 degrees C higher than today (1.8 to 3.6 F).  During the HCO, nearly all the lakes in the Great Basin dried up and the region of the northern rockies was a desert.  Paleoindians who lived in our area at that time moved high in the mountains to survive.

Since the Holocene Climate Optimum a cooling period has occurred leading to our current North American climate.  The Milankovich cycle predicts a continued cooling due to the orbital variation but an unexpected spike in global average temperature has occurred since the start of the industrial revolution.  If the temperature continues to rise, we may be heading toward another period like the Holocene Climate Optimum. The difference is that the HCO temperature rise developed over thousands of years, but, alarmingly, our modern-day global average temperature increase has occurred over decades.
nasaCO2Carbon Dioxide data from the National Aeronautics and Spaca Administration (NASA) showing the atmospheric rise in CO2 levels since the start of the industrial revolution.So what is causing this documented rapid increase in average global temperature?  The vast majority of world scientists believe it is human-caused due to the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. At the same time, we are cutting the world's rainforests, a natural carbon sink, at a rate of 80,000 acres per day.
Local Evidence of Climate Change

The Wind River Range just southeast of Yellowstone has the "largest concentration of glacial mass in the Rocky Mountains within the contiguous USA," says Greg Vandeberg, a physical geographer from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.
Vandeberg received his Masters Degree in Earth Science from Montana State University, Bozeman and a PhD from Kansas State University, and is now chair of the Department of Geography and Geographic Information Science at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. Greg's recent research has focused on the recession of high mountain glaciers in the Rocky mountains.  In collaboration with Jeff Van Looy, an assistant professor with the Department of Earth System Science and Policy at UND, they are conducting cutting-edge research into the condition of high-alpine glaciers in the Wind River Range.

vandebergCrewThe 2014 UND Continental Glacier study team from L to R. Sami Swartz, Robbie MacDonald (standing), Greg Vandeberg sitting, Christian Sovak (standing), Jeff VanLooy. UND Photo.In the summers of 2012 and 2014, Vandeberg and VanLooy (along with some University of Utah researchers) traveled high into the northern Wind River Range to study Continental Glacier, a massive 2.5 square kilometer ice mass in the the headwaters of the Missouri River drainage.  Along with students and an unwieldily amount of equipment including heavy lead batteries, a solar-powered recharger, and a variety of analytical devices, the team took 10 to 12-horse pack trains up to base camp at 10,000 feet.  From there, the team became their own pack animals carrying 65-70 lb. backpacks to Camp 2 at 11,000 feet, where they spent another day acclimating to the altitude.  Continental Glacier Camp would be another 1300 feet above in the thinning alpine air at 12,300 feet.  Life high in the Wind Rivers is tenuous at best. "In a 24 hour period, at 12,300 feet in August," Vandeberg mused, "the weather is at various times windy, snowy, sunny, and freezes every night."

Topographic maps produced by the USGS in 1966 were used to establish a baseline extent and surface elevation of the glacier.  At that time, the world's population was 3.4 billion and the population of the U.S. was 195 million. The current population of the U.S. is over 326 million and the population of the earth is nearing 7.5 billion, over double the 1966 figure.

The team's mission was to create a 3-dimensional model of the glacier using ice-penetrating radar and gps, then calculate the difference in volume from 1966 to the present.  They also measured the glacial meltwater discharge and sampled the geochemistry of snow verses ice melt.  Their results are telling.

Their findings indicate that Continental Glacier has thinned almost 14 meters from 1966 to 2012, or more than the height of a four-story building, and they predict that 43% of the glacier will melt over the next hundred years.  That may seem like a long time when considering the urgency of global warming, but Wind River glaciers are exceptionally high at 11,500 ft to 13,775 ft elevation.  Lower elevation glaciers are melting much more rapidly and disappearing as annual temperatures increase.  Vandeberg cites other studies in the area based on ice core data, which indicate that average annual temperature at 13,000 ft elevation have increased by 3.5 degrees C (6.3 degrees F) between 1960 and the mid-90s.

The other data collected by the UND team relates to stream flow volumes from the melting glacier, and the geochemical composition of the glacial water verses the snowmelt.  In a dry year, 2012, meltwater from Continental Glacier contributed more than 70% of the late summer stream flow of Torrey Creek draining the glacier.  In a wet year, 2014, the glacier contributed 17%.

vandebergContinentalTeam leader Greg Vandeberg on the Continental Glacier in 2012. UND Photo."Our results, along with many other studies, are very concerning," said Vandeberg, "Once these glaciers are melted, the extra water flow will not be available to augment local stream flow.  This will cause great harm to local fisheries and to irrigation water resources."
Just northwest of the Wind Rivers, Yellowstone is also experiencing climate change like we've never seen. The growing season in Yellowstone, the time between the last freeze of Spring and the first freeze of Fall, has increased around 30 days in the last 50 years. The northeast entrance is experiencing 80 more days per year above freezing and 30 fewer days with snow on the ground than in the 1960s.
World Climate is Changing Before Our Eyes

Today we are seeing alpine glaciers melt, and continental ice sheets break up at unprecedented rates across the world. The Arctic tundra is melting and releasing carbon dioxide and methane (another powerful greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. Growing seasons are lengthening in northern climes. 

Already in 2017, Australia has had the most record high days in a single year ever, and a new record for the hottest day in February, 109.2 F,  was reached on February 10th.  Last summer India experienced the hottest day ever, at 123.8 F, and in adjacent Pakistan, temperatures reached 124.7 F.  In 2015, nearly 1300 people died in the  Pakistani heatwave of that summer. The earth's oceans are warming and becoming more acidic causing massive coral bleaching around the world. Traditional fishing grounds are migrating to cooler areas disrupting communities that depend on fishing for their livlihood.
The idea posed from certain camps that since we see huge snowfalls in various locations, global warming can't be happening, indicates an ignorance of science.  A warming climate will naturally accelerate evaporation adding moisture to the atmosphere and may encourage large snow events.  The point is, you can't take isolated events and call it evidence for or against climate change.  That is what long-term scientific studies are for,  and science has shown conclusively that humans are accelerating global warming.
Our Responsibility
It's been a difficult year for climate scientists.  Threats of funding cutbacks and political savaging of the work of a generation of scientists and analytical systems have rocked the community.  These people are the brains of our planet.  It is foolish to disregard their work, work that is in the best interests of everyone.
In the recent United Nations Paris Climate Agreement, the long-term goal is to keep the global average temperature from rising above 1.5 degrees C.  That is approximately the high temperature during the Holocene Climate Optimum when the Northwest became a desert and Great Basin lakes dried up.  To keep the earth's average temperature from rising above this "tipping point" will take a concerted effort of all the nations of the world.  There are signs that our current administration would like to withdraw from the Paris climate deal.  The United States should be a thoughtful leader in pursuing a solution to such a dire problem, especially when the majority of THE brains of our species are telling us so. In modern times, as earth's population hurtles toward 8 billion, we don't really know what the consequences might be when we reach that threshold.  Do we really want to roll the dice?

The bottom line is that the 20 warmest years in recorded history have occurred since 1981, and the 10 warmest have occurred in the last 12 years.  2016 was recently declared the hottest year ever recorded.

NOTE TO CONCERNED CITIZENS OF EARTH:  Recently, geologists and other earth scientists are considering adding a new geologic epoch, "relating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment."  The proposed new epoch has been coined the Anthropocene.  Humans now control the fate of not only our own species, but all species on our planet.

Our state and national representatives who don't believe in science, and deny the overwhelming evidence that humans are causing a rapid increase in greenhouse emissions and average global temperature, are putting us all at risk.  It is up to us as citizens of the earth to deny power to those who would put our planet and its people at risk.  Please think before you vote, and vote for representatives who put people before profit!

Les Davis Film Project

Sadly, my friend and collegue Les Davis died just as we were beginning to develop our proposed documentary film Discovering First Montanans: Portals to the Past.  I have committed to finishing the film with a slightly different approach.  The new working title is Les Davis and the Search for First Montanans.  This is a significant task for a structural geologist with limited exposure to archaeology.  This past April I attended the Montana Archaeological Society Annual Merting and presented my proposal.  We were awarded a $5000 matching fund by MAS for finishing the film.  Watch the trailer here:




 If you would like to help us to finish this important film, please send your contributions to:

Montana Archaeological Society
Les Davis Film
P.O. Box 1123
Manhattan, MT 59741


You can view the full proposal here.


Here is an excerpt from the proposal:

Montana is a notoriously big place, the big sky country. It contains the entire upper Missouri and Yellow- stone River basins and spans an area of over 147,000 square miles. When you add the dimension of time, it gets even bigger.

One man spent much of his Montana life exploring the fourth dimension in his search for the first Montanans. Les Davis was a giant of Montana archaeology and anthropology. He was involved in many excavations and research projects across the state for the last 50 years.

The proposed film centers around Les and his work across Montana, but it also explores the question: Who were the people who occupied the rapidly changing post-glacial tundra, grasslands and forests of Montana? What were their lives like, and how do modern researchers discover the secrets of the early inhabitants of Montana?

The film will utilize archival footage from excavations around the state including Blacktail Cave, Barton Gulch, Sheeprock Springs, MacHaffie, Dry Creek Headwaters, Portal Creek, Mill Iron, Indian Creek, An- zick, the Lindsey Mammoth site, and others.

In collaboration with Dr. Sally Thompson, anthropologist and former University of Montana researcher, and long-time associate of Les Davis, we will conduct interviews with archaeologists, anthropologists, geologists, Native Americans and landowners who collaborated with Les, and the field technicians who meticulously excavated and cataloged artifacts and other clues to the early occupation of Montana and the Greater Yellow- stone area.

We are seeking interest and funding sources to create a one-hour documentary film to be released in the Fall of 2017.

Bird Brains of Yellowstone

One winter back in the mid-nineties, I was traveling around Yellowstone on a snowmobile doing sound for an NHK film crew.  At one particular stop, I believe it was Black Sand Basin, several snowmobiles were parked while their drivers were viewing the hotsprings.  As I walked back to my snowmobile, I witnessed a raven land on a backpack bungied to one of the parked snowmobiles.  He/she deftly grabbed the zipper on top of the backpack and zipped it open.  The coal black grifter then stuck it's head into the pack and pulled out a cellphone which it promptly threw to the ground.  Then ducking its head into the unzipped backpack again, the black forager pulled out a fully wrapped Snickers Bar.  It glanced around with bar in beak to make sure a clean getaway was possible, then flew away with the fat Snickers Bar.  At that time, I was amazed to see the thoughtful process of the Yellowstone raven.  Now, Dr. Alex Taylor, a scientist in the UK has empirically shown the incredible intelligence of the crow.  Watch the video below from the BBC Youtube Channel!

Yellowstone Volcano Observatory

Yesterday the YVO staff wrote:

We have received enough concerned emails and phone calls that we've spent some time tracking down a few of the statements made on various "alternative Internet news sources."

1) First, everyone should know that geological activity, including earthquakes and ground uplift/subsidence is well within historical norms and seismicity is actually a bit low at present.

2) Concern over road closures is much overblown. There's been one road closure of a small side road - just over three miles long - that was closed for two days. As one can imagine, it is not easy to maintain roads that pass over thermal areas where ground temperatures can approach those of boiling water. Roads at Yellowstone often need repair because of damage by thermal features as well as extreme cold winter conditions.

3) The park has not been evacuated. This one is pretty easy to verify by everyone. If the Old Faithful webcam shows people, or if news articles are coming out about a hobbyist's remote control helicopter crashing into a hot spring, Yellowstone is certainly open for business.

4) No volcanologists have stated that Yellowstone is likely to erupt this week, this month or this year. In one recent article, a name was attributed to a "senior volcanologist", but that person does not appear to exist, and a geologist with that name assures us that he did not supply any quotes regarding Yellowstone.

5) Finally, we note that those who've kept track of Yellowstone over the past decade or so, have seen a constant stream of "predictions" regarding imminent eruptions at Yellowstone. Many have had specific dates in mind, none had a scientific basis, and none have come true.

We will continue to provide updates on geological activity at Yellowstone, and educational materials to help understand the science around Yellowstone monitoring.

Virtually everything known about Yellowstone's spectacular volcanic past comes from the scientists who work at this observatory, at all our eight member agencies. We're the ones who mapped the deposits, figured out the ages of the eruptions, measured the gases, located the earthquakes, and tracked the ground movement. A few of us have been doing it for over forty years. We will continue to help you understand what's happening at Yellowstone now, and what's likely to happen in the future.

Yellowstone Volcano Observatory

Mother Nature Never Loses

I'm thinking this Sunday morning about the souls lost in the catastrophic mudslide in Oso, Washington last week. Our species, indeed, all species on earth are so fragile.  The slightest hiccup in earth processes, barely noticeable in a macro view can devastate a population.  A collision of air masses, shifting of a small crack in the earth's crust, a subtle warming of the ocean all can devastate organisms be they human, avian or marine invertebrate.

As a dominant species on our frail planet, common sense would seem to suggest that we be cautious about manipulations of our environment.  Injecting lubricating fluids into the earth to force out potential fuels is a revolutionary idea.  We all use and need energy for our existence and the pursuit of innovation.  But, we should be extremely selective about where we execute such a procedure when the health of a community's drinking water might be at stake?  In our world, profits grossly outweigh common sense - especially when the profiters or profiteers are not directly affected by the consequences.

The sad outcome of the mudslide in Oso could have been prevented.  There were strong warnings of the potential for a large earth movement in the area.  Yet, many of the houses were built in the last few years.  Some owners, it appears, had no idea of the risk.  I would say that it is incumbent upon the realtors and land owners who would profit from the sale of such lands to be aware of the risks and to convey that information to the potential purchaser. Knowing this information and not conveying it should be a criminal act in my estimation.

My thoughts are with the families who lost loved ones in the devastating debris flow.  We can only hope that we come away with a better understanding and more thoughtful view of our interaction with the dynamic earth on which we live.