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Yellowstone tourism generates over a megaton of carbon emissions every year

Yellowstone National Park is one of America’s most beloved attractions, drawing over 4 million visitors each year. But did you know that Yellowstone also leaves a carbon mark on the climate?

A recent study took a deep dive into Yellowstone National Park’s carbon footprint. This research reveals the surprising ways tourism contributes to carbon emissions, especially at iconic destinations like Yellowstone.

The climate impact of our everyday choices

Our planet’s climate is constantly changing, and human activities are a major contributing factor. When we burn fossil fuels like gasoline for our cars or natural gas for heating, we release greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

These gases act like a blanket, trapping heat around the Earth and causing global temperatures to rise. This is what we call climate change. Every single activity we do throughout the day has the potential to generate greenhouse gas emissions.

Here are some everyday examples:

  • Transportation: Driving a car, flying on a plane, or even taking a bus all involve burning fuel and releasing emissions.
  • Energy use: Heating and cooling our homes, powering our appliances, and using electronics all contribute to the overall demand for energy, which often comes from fossil fuel sources.
  • Food production: Raising livestock, growing crops, and transporting food all have an impact on the environment, including greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Manufacturing: Making the things we use every day, from clothes to computers, requires energy and can release pollutants.

While any single action might seem small, when billions of people around the world are doing similar things, the cumulative effect can be significant. That’s why it’s important to be mindful of our choices and look for ways to reduce our carbon footprint.

Carbon footprint of Yellowstone

Scientists at Utah State University decided to figure out just how much carbon a Yellowstone vacation adds to the atmosphere. Here’s what they found:

Yellowstone’s carbon cost

It’s hard to imagine the impact of tourism on a place as vast as Yellowstone. But the numbers are staggering: visitors to the park generate over one megaton of carbon emissions every single year. That’s one million tons – the equivalent weight of thousands of cars!

Your personal impact

Each individual visiting Yellowstone might not feel like they’re making a huge difference. However, on average, a single visitor contributes about 479 kilograms of carbon emissions.

To put that in perspective, it’s like releasing the emissions from burning about 50 gallons of gasoline – enough to fuel a car on a road trip.

The truth about travel

The most surprising fact of all? Nearly 90% of the carbon footprint related to a Yellowstone trip comes just from traveling to and from the park.

This means that even before you set foot on a trail or see your first geyser, your journey has already significantly impacted the environment.

Factors contributing to Yellowstone’s carbon footprint

So, where do all these emissions come from?

The cost of air travel

While only about a third of Yellowstone visitors arrive by plane, those flights have an outsized impact on the park’s carbon footprint.

Air travel produces a staggering 72% of emissions related to getting to and from the park. This is due to the large amount of fuel burned by airplanes, especially on long-haul flights.

Driving still adds up to Yellowstone’s carbon

Even if you choose to drive to Yellowstone, your journey creates a significant carbon footprint. The amount of emissions depends on the distance you travel, the fuel efficiency of your car, and whether you carpool.

Inside the park: Accommodation and activities

  • Moving around and staying overnight: The carbon impact doesn’t stop once you arrive at Yellowstone. Driving within the park boundaries and staying in hotels, lodges, or campgrounds contributes an additional 9% to the overall emissions total.
  • Park operations: A Smaller Footprint It might surprise you that the park’s own operations, including running visitor centers, shops, and restaurants, make up only 1% of the carbon impact from tourism. This highlights the fact that visitor travel choices are the biggest factor in the park’s carbon emissions.

Yellowstone: Still a carbon sink (for now)

There’s a silver lining to all this – for the moment. Yellowstone’s vast forests and grasslands act as a “carbon sink,” absorbing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than tourism emits.

However, as visitor numbers grow, and particularly if more people arrive by plane, this balance could tip. Plus, smaller parks with high visitation may already be carbon sources, not sinks.

“We really need more research on both the effect of tourism on climate change, and the effect of climate change on tourism,” said Emily Wilkins from the Department of Environment and Society.

“These topics both have major economic and environmental repercussions. Managers and decision makers need a more complete perspective for how tourism to parks is contributing to a vulnerable global climate system.”

What can you do?

Enjoying national parks while being mindful of climate change might seem tricky, but here are a few ideas:

Explore locally

Instead of always seeking out far-off destinations, discover the beauty of parks, forests, and natural areas closer to home. You might be surprised by the hidden gems in your own region, and you’ll dramatically reduce the distances you need to travel.

Road trip vs. flying

When a destination is too far for a day trip, consider driving instead of flying whenever possible. This reduces the substantial carbon emissions associated with air travel. If you have to fly, choose direct flights which are more fuel-efficient than routes with multiple stops and starts.

Power of sharing

Carpooling with friends and family, or opting for public transportation like buses or trains, reduces the number of vehicles on the road and lowers your individual carbon impact.

Sustainable stays and activities

Support businesses that prioritize environmental responsibility. Look for lodges and hotels with green certifications, tour operators committed to minimizing waste, and restaurants that source local, sustainable ingredients. Your choices send a message that eco-conscious travel matters.

It’s crucial to remember that visiting parks like Yellowstone sparks a love of nature and can inspire conservation efforts. The key is finding a balance between enjoying these special places and doing our part to protect them for the future.

The study is published in PLOS Climate.


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