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Tomorrow’s Yellowstone

How a warming world is changing the places we love

Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, both part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, attract millions of visitors from across the globe each year, drawn there by the parks’ charismatic bison and majestic mountains, colorful hot springs and vast forests.

Monica Turner, a professor of integrative biology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, fell in love with the region in 1978 when she arrived at Yellowstone from the east coast of the U.S. as a 19-year-old interpretive ranger with the Student Conservation Association.

She was struck with awe at the immensity of the landscape and realized she wanted to better understand and sustain it. When she returned several years later, with a PhD and a commitment to study the region, the opportunity for a novel, long-term research project appeared: monitoring the landscapes’ recovery after the historic 1988 Yellowstone fires burned nearly one third of the park.

Today, Turner is a renowned landscape ecologist whose career has spanned more than 35 years studying the changes happening in the ecosystem’s forests.

And the forests are changing.

While no landscape is static, Turner, her students and colleagues have spent decades documenting shifts both subtle and significant, homing in on the effects of a climate changing due to human influence. Now, they’re using this wealth of data to predict the future, forecasting changes that may surprise the people who have come to love the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem of today.

The graphs and data points that create these computer-simulated forecasts may not be easy for most people to understand. But Turner and her team are finding ways to help reveal tomorrow’s Yellowstone in pictures based on the data. Using simulated images, they hope to show people landscapes that don’t yet exist, but might if the climate of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem continues to get warmer and drier.

Their models expect it will.

The shifts that result from a changing climate are often too subtle for any individual to see, and it can be difficult to fully understand their magnitude. But with recent road-buckling heat waves in the Pacific Northwest, glacial floods that wiped out towns in Pakistan and droughts threatening to dry out the Colorado River, Turner believes the public is starting to notice.

Even in Madison, Wisconsin, the summer of 2023 brought weeks of hazy skies and dangerous air quality as smoke from Canadian wildfires blanketed the city.

Smoke from wildfires in Canada obscures the Wisconsin State Capitol as seen from Bascom Hill on June 28, 2023.

Yellowstone saw significant flooding in the summer of 2022 that wiped out roads, damaged wastewater infrastructure and led to the evacuation of visitors.

Change is coming to the places people love, and it’s getting harder to ignore.

Greater Yellowstone is just one ecosystem in one corner of the world. However, studying how one landscape responds as the climate heats up can help us understand what may happen in places around the world facing similar changes.

And since so many people love Yellowstone, it’s a great place to help the public appreciate the magnitude and tempo of climate change.

The Yellowstone River rushes over waterfalls and cuts through the jagged bottom of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone in Yellowstone National Park. Pine trees dot the steep slope of yellow, orange and white rock as the foamy blue river cuts through the canyon.
Yellowstone National Park is full of iconic landscapes and vistas like the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, seen here. Visitors from around the world travel thousands of miles to see this postcard-ready view for themselves. But how will these places change in a warmer, drier future?
Warm light from sunset turns a dense stand of tall lodgepole pines a golden green color that seems to glow in Grand Teton National Park. The forest of pines is nestled at the foot of a large hill that rises up above the horizon into sweeping grey clouds.
Forests of common tree species in the region, like these lodgepole pines, have evolved to recover rapidly after a burn. But changing climate conditions have already allowed fires to burn more often. If the fire frequency changes faster than trees can adapt, scientists expect to see many fewer of the vast forested areas in the future.
A female moose turns to face the sun that is casting the forest around her in golden, evening light. The moose stands amid green grasses that are growing between burnt and fallen lodgepole pines.
The charismatic wildlife of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, like the moose pictured here, draw visitors to the parks every year. But changes to climate will also mean changes to habitat, affecting animals big and small. As these forests change, animals like martens, red squirrels and black-backed woodpeckers will lose access to the food and shelter they depend on.
A low angle looks up through several tall lodgepole pine and into the inky, blue night sky dotted with stars. The pine are cast in a red glow from a street light out of frame, striking stark contrast between the blues in the sky.
Changes in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem won’t diminish its value and beauty, but studying those changes can help us understand the changes that will happen if we don’t take steps to reduce atmospheric carbon emissions. Turner knows that Yellowstone will be different in the future, but she also believes we have agency to decide how different it will be.

Yellowstone National Park forms the core of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of the largest nearly intact ecosystems in Earth’s temperate zone. The neighboring Grand Teton National Park and several national forests and wildlife refuges in the area comprise part of the larger ecosystem. Turner and her lab have field sites all over the region.

Because of her studies, Turner and her colleagues can see that the forests of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are changing. This is due, in large part, to changes in fire.

Fire has long been a natural part of the ecosystem.

Lodgepole pines are one of the most common tree species in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and they’re well adapted to the historical cadence of fires in the area, which researchers call the historic fire regime. In fact, once the trees are old enough, they produce cones that are designed to open in fire, helping the trees establish new stands.

A mosaic of burned and unburned forest in Yellowstone National Park after the 1988 fires.

But a warmer, drier climate is increasing the frequency of fires and disrupting the forests’ ability to recover as trees can no longer effectively disperse their seeds. Over time, the result will be patchier forests and fewer of the trees visitors are used to seeing in these iconic landscapes.

That’s concerning because forests are the backbone of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

“Yellowstone will change, and it’s changing at a faster rate than perhaps we had anticipated,” Turner says. “The vast forests that we see throughout the landscape from all those scenic vistas, many of those may disappear.”

A change in habitat also means a change in the resources that animals big and small rely on — animals visitors love to see.

Turner feels the urgency to find answers. That’s because what’s happening at Yellowstone foreshadows the subtle changes happening in other ecosystems around the world. Turner wants to help people grasp what’s coming; She may be uniquely poised to do so.

Monica Turner carries a backpack and bear spray while she walks through an open landscape mostly populated by a few small trees, shrubs, and green grasses. Several yards behind her, tall burnt lodgepole pine rise up, their bare trunks and branches silhouetted against a blue sky.

Blazing a trail

When the Yellowstone fires of 1988 burned nearly one third of the park, they sparked national media attention. Scientists and the public had never seen fires on that scale, and there were questions about if and how the landscape would recover. Since then, Monica Turner has been conducting a long-term study on forest recovery and resilience.

Rooted in a deep love of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Turner has trained a generation of fire ecologists, influenced forest management and shaped how we understand the future of western landscapes. Yellowstone is changing, but she knows it will continue to inspire people with its beauty, even if it’s different.

View Monica’s photo story

One of Turner’s biggest beacons of hope is the inspiration and ingenuity she sees in young people.

“I love the enthusiasm, the energy, the inquisitiveness and perseverance that the young scientists bring to our efforts,” Turner says. “I really enjoy the interchange with them and just the intellectual excitement that we get from that.”

Over the course of her career, Turner has brought more than 100 undergraduates to help with field research in Yellowstone, most of whom are from UW–Madison. Each field season is different, depending on her graduate students’ individual research projects, but they always update data and log observations for the lab’s long-term studies.

This summer, Timon Keller and Arielle Link, PhD students in the Turner lab, and Lucy McGuire, the lab’s manager, joined Turner in Yellowstone. They helped visitors see the changes that could happen to the landscape and surveyed their thoughts on climate change. They measured nitrogen levels and observed fungal relationships in the soil at past burn sites. And throughout the process, Turner helped the students ask and find answers to their own scientific questions. She also continues to help them think about how to share their results with the public.

Click below to meet some of the UW–Madison researchers at Yellowstone

Science doesn’t always happen in a lab. For Turner and her team, much of the science they do comes from time spent in the field, studying the landscape’s ecology and sharing their work with the people affected by climate change. That means everyone.

At their core, Turner and her students love the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and they want science to help sustain it so future generations can enjoy the unique forests and landscapes, too.

“Having this [experience] as an undergrad, I’m incredibly grateful,” says McGuire, who recently graduated and became manager of Turner’s lab. “Sometimes I can’t believe I’m doing it. We’re driving around, and I’m just like ‘Wow, this is where I’m working.’”

While their field season is busy with data collection and hands-on training in the field, the team also finds time to recharge in the same natural beauty that draws park visitors to Yellowstone every day.

Lucy McGuire runs through the middle of the frame from a large brown tent to the open door in the side of a white and grey RV parked at a campsite in Grand Teton National Park.

Researchers offline

Getting to work, eat, live and sleep in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national park is a unique experience and one Arielle, Timon and Lucy don’t take for granted. Take a look at a day in the life of a Turner lab researcher.

View the photo story

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a place people have loved since long before it was designated national park land. There are 27 tribes with ties to the land and its resources, and Indigenous people have inhabited the region since time immemorial. Studying the landscape and including more perspectives on sustaining them is vital to ensuring people from all backgrounds can visit, learn, connect with the place and be inspired by it for many years to come. While tomorrow’s Yellowstone will look different than today’s, the magnitude of that difference depends on the actions of all of us.

What can you do?

While it will take systemic solutions to reduce atmospheric carbon emissions, requiring commitments from governments and industry, individuals do still have the power to make a difference. For instance, Turner emphasizes that voting is one of the best ways individuals can help advocate for the places they love. Project Drawdown, a nonprofit organization that focuses on science-based solutions to address climate change, also offers a host of ways individuals and households can reduce their contributions to climate change. These include:

  • Reducing your food waste
  • Transitioning to a more plant-rich diet
  • Helping restore natural habitats
  • Opting to use public transportation or commute by bicycle
  • Installing solar panels on your home

Find a full list of 20 high-impact climate actions and more solutions at Project Drawdown’s website.

Funding and permitting information:

Funding for the Turner lab’s research comes from many sources, a few of which include the National Science Foundation (DEB-1719905 and DEB-2027261), the Joint Fire Science Program (16-3-01-4), the National Park Service Reserve Fund Research (Agreements P19AC00809 and P22AC00588), Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, Buffalo Bill Center of the West and the University of Wisconsin Vilas Trust.

All filming and photography in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks for “Tomorrow’s Yellowstone” was completed under Special Use Permits YELL SUP23-273 and GRTE FILM-5500-23-29. The Turner lab’s research is permitted in each park under permits YELL-2023-SCI-5238, YELL-2023-SCI-8290, GRTE-2023-SCI-0022 and GRTE-2023-SCI-0042.

Explore these other stories to learn more about the team, the science behind their work and the changes the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem could face in the next century.