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By Mike Brandolino
Yellowstone National Park, along with countless other natural preserves, is at risk of permanent ecological damage from climate change. Disruptions in the natural ecological balance can have devastating effects on biodiversity, animal habitats, and individual species. Threats to natural areas include toxic chemicals, plant and animal diseases, and invasive pest species.
Both environments and species have developed mechanisms to respond to environmental changes and make adaptations needed for survival. Sometimes changes occur much too fast, however, for organisms to adapt to their surroundings.
Carbon dioxide emissions from residential, industrial, and motor vehicle sources are contributing to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The atmosphere is a fluid and free-moving global insulator and, as part of the climate regulation system, it transports masses of air all over the planet. As a result, greenhouse gases that are produced in one part of the world can have adverse effects on a location on the other side of the world. This has come to be known as climate change.
All ecosystems are connected through the atmosphere, whether on the frigid Antarctic polar ice cap or in the sweltering tropical rainforests of Indonesia. Everyone and everything shares the same atmosphere.
Scientific data indicates that greenhouse gases are responsible for increasing the daily global temperatures. In Yellowstone National Park, climate change is causing unusual and devastating effects on some of the native species.
Population Shifts and Species Loss
In the 1930s and 1970s, surges of warm weather resulted in mountain pine beetle population booms. The population levels receded after the temperatures dropped to normal. In recent years, increasing temperatures have resulted in mountain pine beetle population explosions, which are wreaking havoc on massive stands of whitebark pine trees in Yellowstone. The beetles bore into the tree to feed on phloem, which is the tree’s own food source. Female beetles lay their eggs in the tree, where they hatch and the larvae feed on the phloem. Eventually, the trees die from the inside out.
The whitebark pine is the dominant tree species above 8,500-feet (2,600-meter) elevation. Several animal species depend on whitebark pine for survival, including grizzly bears. The grizzly bears, particularly pregnant females, rely on the the high-calorie seeds of the whitebark pinecones as a food source. Prior to hibernating, grizzly bears must consume massive quantities of high-calorie foods to build fat reserves. If the whitebark pinecones become scarce, grizzlies must seek other food sources or face hibernation ill equipped to survive.
The Future of Yellowstone Forests
Rising temperatures already damaged whitebark pine forests in Yellowstone National Park. While the full effects on Yellowstone’s eco system are not yet known, the tree loss is likely to affect grizzlies and other species in the park.
This is just one small example of an ecosystem being disrupted by human activity and climate change. Yellowstone National Park is merely a microcosm of what is happening to our world.
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Mike Brandolino is a research biologist and agricultural/environmental issues writer.
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