When my eight brothers and sisters and I were young, our parents took us on a camping trip through Yellowstone National Park.
Aside from the family lore we brought back — the family who slept through a bear crashing through their tent next to ours, the bear who carried off a bag of baby food jars, the bear who chased our father until he threw his wallet at him — we all came away awestruck by the most magnificent wilderness we had ever seen.
England may have its collection of crown jewels; we have our fabulous parks. We have Yellowstone.
Thus, I was heartsick to come across a remarkable story and time-lapse photography piece in The New York Times, written by Marguerite Holloway and photographed by Josh Haner. It concludes that the Yellowstone our children and grandchildren see will not be the same.
The park that draws four million visitors each year to witness its fantastic, magical beauty, its spewing geysers, its fascinating animals is being changed forever.
Climate change is not the future. Climate change is here, now. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization says Yellowstone, a World Heritage site, is threatened seriously by climate change.
Summers are hotter and drier. Winters are shorter with less snowfall, but snow is vital for the health of the park. As a result, species once saved from extinction — bison, gray wolves, trumpeter swans, elk and grizzlies — are again threatened.
Invasive cheatgrass is rapidly wiping out nutritious plants that animals need to live. Brooks, streams and lakes are warmer. The Yellowstone River, famous for fly fishing, was closed to fishing in 2016 because thousands of fish died from sickness. Fires are more frequent and more devastating. In 1988 one-third of the park succumbed to fire; new growth has since been wiped out.
Eighty percent of the park’s iconic whitebark pines are gone, infested by mountain pine beetles. Grizzlies eat the seeds of the pines. Grizzlies have been re-listed as threatened.
With less forestation, flood-and-drought cycles are more intense. Since 1948, the park is two degrees hotter. There are 60 fewer days below freezing than there were 30 years ago. The Northern Rockies snowpack is at its lowest level in eight centuries, Holloway quotes University of California, Berkeley, scientist Patrick Gonzalez as stating.
Every month there is another example of climate change impacting us here, now. Despite the denial of some politicians, the California fires have been exacerbated by climate change — hotter, drier temperatures. California has been in drought for years. Killer fires are not an aberration; they are the new normal. Air pollution is now the worst in the state’s history, threatening not just children and the elderly but everyone. An area the size of Delaware has been destroyed by more than 7,000 fires this year alone, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
But there is no part of the country that is being spared. The Midwest breadbasket is endangered because of unpredictable weather and drought. High temperatures stress both plants and animals, lowering food production and raising prices. High temperatures when plants are flowering may result in no seeds at all. Animals in severe heat are less productive, less fertile and more prone to illness.
Social scientists increasingly are worried about food insecurity not just in low-latitude countries but even in the United States. Storms in the East are more violent and damaging. Glaciers are melting. Coastal cities are flooding.
The most important thing for us to do is to spread awareness that climate change is real, here and now, and to make our politicians respond to the undisputed science that the actions we take will impact not just future generations but our own. Climate change is worsening because of greed and denial and being mired in and in love with the status quo. Technology alone will not save us. We need political will, determination, world cooperation. We almost got there and then we fell back and more people will die.
It will take longer than it should, but as a country we will get to the point of agreement that climate change is a crisis, here and now, and we can solve it. The deniers will be ridiculed and their memories cast into the dustbin of history.
It is too late for Yellowstone to stay the same, but it is not too late to save as much as possible of this beloved, spectacular heritage.
(Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.)