OUTHEATED – Snowmobilers who enjoy cruising the groomed roads inside Yellowstone National Park might want to pick up a new winter hobby in the coming decades.
New research on declining snowpack levels in Yellowstone predicts significantly fewer days that snowmobiles and snow coaches will be able to travel on some of the park’s most popular routes, according to the Post Register in Idaho Falls.
By the end of the century, the road from West Yellowstone, Montana, might not be rideable at all, though a few high-elevation routes figure to remain open most winters.
The peer-reviewed study was published July 28 in the online journal “Plos One.” The authors, Mike Tercek and Ann Rodman, used climate models and historic data from Snotel climate sensor sites positioned near roads in the park to forecast snowpack levels through 2090.
Tercek, a Gardiner, Montana-based ecologist, said research has shown that average snowpack levels in Yellowstone have already declined precipitously in recent years. It’s going to get worse as the climate continues to warm, he said.
Yellowstone’s winter recreation season runs December to March, and brings in $60 million annually in tourism revenue to gateway communities. When there were poor snow conditions in Yellowstone in recent winters, Tercek said, people often said, “ ‘Oh, this is just a bad year, but it’ll be OK next year.’
“But this isn’t just an isolated incident when you have a bad year,” he said Wednesday. “What we consider to be a bad year now is going to be average in the future.”
Under a climate change scenario where greenhouse gas emissions remain at current levels, the season for snowmobilers would be shortened by 13 percent on average between 2030 and 2060, and 16 percent between 2060 and 2090, the study said.
However, under a scenario that predicts emissions continuing to go up at their current rate, the winter season would on average be shortened by 16 percent in the mid-century time frame, and 26 percent late in the century.
The least amount of snow the researchers considered rideable by snowmobiles was 4 inches of “snow-water equivalent” – or roughly 12 inches of snow coating the road.
One solution officials already are experimenting with is converting snow coaches to use large, low-pressure tires instead of tracks so that they can cross both snow and pavement. But snowmobiles might not be so adaptable, Tercek said.
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