Floods leave Yellowstone’s landscape ‘radically changed’

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A home that was washed into Rock Creek in Red Lodge, Montana by raging floodwaters is seen Tuesday, June 14, 2022.

Matthew Brown | PA

The forces of fire and ice have shaped Yellowstone National Park for thousands of years. It took decades more for humans to tame it enough for tourists to visit, often from the comfort of their cars.

In just a few days, heavy rains and rapid snowmelt have caused dramatic flooding that could forever alter the human footprint on the park’s land and the communities that have developed around it.

Historic floodwaters that raged through Yellowstone this week, ripping out bridges and pouring into nearby homes, have diverted a popular fishing river — possibly permanently — and could force roads nearly torn apart by torrents of water to be rebuilt in new places.

“The landscape, both literally and figuratively, has changed dramatically in the past 36 hours,” said Bill Berg, a commissioner for neighboring Park County. “A little ironic that this dramatic landscape was created by violent geological and hydrological events, and it’s just not very practical when that happens when we’re all settled on it.”

The unprecedented flooding drove more than 10,000 visitors from the country’s oldest national park and damaged hundreds of homes in nearby communities, although remarkably no one was injured or killed. The only visitors left in the huge tri-state park were a dozen campers who kept coming out of the backcountry.

The park could remain closed for up to a week and the north entrances may not reopen this summer, Superintendent Cam Sholly said.

“I’ve heard it’s a 1,000 year event, whatever that means these days. They seem to be happening more and more frequently,” he said.

Sholly noted that some weather forecasts include the possibility of additional flooding this weekend.

Days of rain and rapid snowmelt wreaked havoc in parts of southern Montana and northern Wyoming, where they washed out cabins, flooded small towns and knocked out power. It hit the park as a summer tourist season that attracts millions of visitors intensified during its 150th anniversary.

Businesses in hard-hit Gardiner had just begun to recover from the contraction in tourism caused by the coronavirus pandemic and were hoping for a good year, Berg said.

“It’s a Yellowstone town, and it lives and dies on tourism, and it’s going to be a pretty big hit,” he said. “They’re trying to figure out how to hold things together.”

This aerial photo provided by the National Park Service shows a flooded north entrance road from Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Montana on June 13, 2022.

Jacob W. Frank | National Park Service | PA

Some of the worst damage occurred in the northern part of the park and in the entrance communities of Yellowstone in southern Montana. National Park Service photos of northern Yellowstone showed a landslide, washed-out bridges and roads undermined by floodwaters from the Gardner and Lamar rivers.

In Red Lodge, a town of 2,100 that is a popular starting point for a scenic drive through the Yellowstone High Country, a creek running through the town jumped from its banks and overwhelmed the main thoroughfare, leaving trout swimming down the street a day later under sunny skies.

Residents described a heartbreaking scene where water went from a trickle to a torrent in just hours.

The water toppled telephone poles, toppled fences and carved deep cracks in the ground across a neighborhood of hundreds of homes. Electricity was restored on Tuesday, but there was still no running water in the affected area.

Heidi Hoffman left early Monday to buy a sump pump in Billings, but by the time she returned her basement was full of water.

“We lost all of our stuff in the basement,” Hoffman said as the pump removed a steady stream of water in his muddy yard. “Directories, photos, clothes, furniture. They were going to be cleaned for a long time.

At least 200 homes were flooded in Red Lodge and the town of Fromberg.

In this aerial view, flooding is seen June 14, 2022 in Livingston, Montana. The Yellowstone River hit has a historically high flow due to rain and snowmelt from the mountains in and around Yellowstone National Park.

William Campbell | Getty Images

The flooding came as the Midwest and East Coast sizzled from a heat wave and other parts of the West scorched from an early wildfire season amid a persistent drought that has increased the frequency and intensity of fires. Smoke from a fire in the mountains of Flagstaff, Arizona could be seen in Colorado.

Although the flooding hasn’t been directly attributed to climate change, Rick Thoman, a climate scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said a warming environment makes extreme weather events more likely than they may be. would have been “without the warming that human activity has caused”. .”

“Will Yellowstone have a repeat of this in five or even 50 years? Maybe not, but somewhere will have something equivalent or even more extreme,” he said.

Heavy rains atop the mountain snowmelt pushed the Yellowstone, Stillwater and Clarks Fork rivers to record highs on Monday and triggered landslides and landslides, according to the National Weather Service. The Yellowstone River at Corwin Springs broke a record set in 1918.

Roads north of Yellowstone may remain impassable for a long time. Flooding has also affected the rest of the park, with park officials warning of even greater flooding and potential problems with water supplies and sewerage systems in developed areas.

The rains hit just as hotels in the area have been filling up in recent weeks with summer tourists. More than 4 million visitors were counted by the park last year. The wave of tourists doesn’t subside until fall, and June is usually one of Yellowstone’s busiest months.

A view shows rocks sliding down the side of a hill and hitting a car at the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Montana, U.S. June 12, 2022 in this still image obtained from video on social networks published on June 14, 2022.

Anne Leppold | Reuters

Mark Taylor, owner and chief pilot of Rocky Mountain Rotors, said his company had flown about 40 paying customers in the past two days from Gardiner, including two “very pregnant” women.

Taylor spoke while ferrying a family of four adults from Texas, who wanted to do more sightseeing before returning home.

“I imagine they’re going to rent a car and they’re going to visit other parts of Montana, a drier place,” he said.

At a cabin in Gardiner, Parker Manning of Terre Haute, Indiana, got a close view of the floodwaters of the Yellowstone River right outside his door. Whole trees and even a lone kayaker have been there.

In the early evening, he shot video as the waters ate away the opposite bank where a large brown house that housed park workers before their evacuation was perched precariously.

With a loud crunch heard over the roar of the river, the house tipped over in the waters and was swept away by the current. Sholly said it floated for 8 kilometers before sinking.

The towns of Cooke City and Silvergate, just east of the park, were also cut off by floodwaters, which also made drinking water unsafe. People left a hospital and low areas in Livingston.

In south-central Montana, 68 people at a campground were rescued by raft after the Stillwater River flooded. Some roads in the area were closed and residents were evacuated.

In the hamlet of Nye, at least four huts spilled into the Stillwater River, Shelley Blazina said, including one she owned.

“It was my sanctuary,” she said Tuesday. “Yesterday I was in shock. Today I’m just in intense sadness.”

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