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Yellowstone lake maintains ice cover despite warming climate

Warming temperatures across the region have not altered the serene expanse of Yellowstone National Park, where ice cover on the vast Yellowstone Lake, North America’s largest high-elevation lake, presents a fascinating anomaly in the face of climate change.

Remarkably, the ice cover duration on Yellowstone Lake has remained consistent over the past century. This intriguing discovery comes from a comprehensive study led by University of Wyoming scientists.

Icy anomaly at Yellowstone Lake amidst

Rising temperatures are reducing the ice cover duration of most lakes globally, making Yellowstone Lake’s resistance to change a unique case.

“We show that contrary to expectation, the ice phenology of Yellowstone Lake has been uniquely resistant to climate change,” noted Lusha Tronstad, lead invertebrate zoologist at UW’s Wyoming Natural Diversity Database.

Moreover, this resistance starkly contrasts with trends observed in similar lakes throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

Isabella Oleksy, a former UW postdoctoral researcher now affiliated with the University of Colorado-Boulder, also contributed to this study.

Yellowstone Lake is positioned at 7,733 feet above sea level and spans approximately 132 square miles. It freezes completely around late December or early January and thaws by late May or early June each year.

Consequently, to uncover the reasons behind the unchanged ice cover duration, researchers examined long-term records of ice-on and ice-off dates.

They also analyzed climate data from 1927 to 2022, involving air temperatures and precipitation. These findings were then compared against data from seven similar lakes in northern Europe.

Since 1950, the greater Yellowstone ecosystem has seen a 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit increase in annual temperatures. At the lake’s high elevation, this rise has been more pronounced, with temperatures increasing by 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit between 1980 and 2018. Despite these increases, the expected shifts in ice phenology were absent.

Using local weather data, we found some evidence for increased summer, fall, and spring temperatures, primarily in the last three decades. Furthermore, they emphasized the crucial role of air temperatures in ice formation and break-up.

Snow’s shielding effect on Yellowstone Lake ice

A pivotal factor contributing to the lake’s consistent ice cover appears to be the increased snowfall. This is particularly true in spring, which can significantly delay ice break-up.

The researchers observed that cumulative spring snow, which correlates strongly with delayed ice-off dates, has nearly doubled over the last century at Yellowstone Lake.

In contrast, the Upper Green River Basin to the south has experienced either a decline or stable high-elevation snowfall. The ongoing climatic shifts suggest a future tipping point, where ice phenology at Yellowstone Lake might abruptly change.

“Our results, paired with recent analyses of climate projections, suggest a ‘tipping point’ may be coming when ice phenology abruptly changes for Yellowstone Lake,” the team cautioned. This shift is expected from changing precipitation patterns, transitioning from snow to more rain in fall and spring.

Despite increased spring rainfall not yet inducing a noticeable trend toward earlier ice break-up, the balance could shift. This change may occur as temperatures continue to rise and snowfall decreases. Such changes could have profound impacts on nutrient cycling, lake productivity, fisheries, and recreation, highlighting the broader environmental consequences of climate change.

Lessons learned from Yellowstone Lake ice

In summary, as we marvel at Yellowstone Lake’s ice and remarkable resistance to climate change, we must also recognize the critical importance of continued research and monitoring.

This iconic lake serves as a powerful reminder that nature’s responses to global warming are complex and sometimes unexpected.

By studying the intricate relationships between temperature, precipitation, and ice cover, we can deepen our understanding of the challenges that lie ahead and develop strategies to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Yellowstone Lake’s icy puzzle may hold valuable lessons for us all, underlining the urgent need for ongoing scientific investigation and conservation efforts in the face of a rapidly changing world.

The full study was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.


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