JACKSON —There are no glaciers in Yellowstone National Park.
That’s according to Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly. Speaking with the Jackson Hole Daily on Friday morning about the summer season, he responded to a UNESCO report that said climate change would cause some glaciers in World Heritage Sites to disappear by 2050. Glaciers in Yellowstone were included in that list.
That was an error, Sholly said. The superintendent said Yellowstone had told UNESCO as much.
“There’s definitely places in the national park system in North America where glaciers are receding at substantially faster rates than we envisioned,” Sholly said. “But there are no glaciers in Yellowstone.”
The report was released ahead of the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, which is known colloquially as COP27 and is currently being held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The meeting is an opportunity for governments, businesses and other stakeholders to talk about solutions to climate change.
The UNESCO report, a partnership with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, said that glaciers in the 50 World Heritage Sites that house them were retreating at an accelerated rate since 2000, losing some 58 billion tons of ice every year responsible for 5% of global sea level rise.
In a press release, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said the report was a “call to action.” It was picked up nationally with headlines like “Yellowstone, Yosemite glaciers to disappear in 30 years.”
“Only a rapid reduction in our CO2 emissions levels can save glaciers and the exceptional biodiversity that depends on them,” Azoulay said. “COP27 will have a crucial role to help find solutions to this issue. UNESCO is determined to support states in pursuing this goal.”
Some areas that the UNESCO report identified, like Yosemite National Park, do have glaciers that are melting.
Yosemite, for example, reported in 2020 that the Lyell and Maclure Glaciers lost 67% to 78% of their surface area from 1883 to 2017. Up to 16% of that loss happened between 2012 and 2015, according to Yosemite.
Climate change is affecting the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and glaciers are melting elsewhere in the ecosystem, including in Grand Teton National Park.
Climate change, driven by human emission of heat-trapping, planet-warming greenhouse gases, is intensifying, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
As that happens, warming temperatures are expected to amplify the loss of seasonal snow cover and summer Arctic ice, as well as the thawing of permafrost and melting of glaciers.
Those trends are bearing out in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where scientists have identified a steady decline in snowpack since the 1980s, according to the Greater Yellowstone Climate Assessment. That report also says that, using tree ring data, scientists have found a longer-scale decline during the 20th and 21st centuries compared to the previous 800 years.
South of Yellowstone, glaciers are receding in Grand Teton. There, park scientists said earlier this summer that the Teepee Glacier, previously one of the most visible ice masses in the park, was likely no longer an active glacier.
The Middle Teton Glacier, which Grand Teton scientists study as a proxy for other glaciers in the park, has also been receding. Between 2016 and 2021, it lost 1.6 meters of ice, on average, across survey points in the Garnet Canyon ice mass. That equates to roughly 50,000 tons of ice.
Yellowstone glaciers, meanwhile, have not existed “in our lifetime,” Sholly said.
Long-receded glaciers have, however, played a major role in shaping the park’s geology, depositing boulders and ponds between the Yellowstone and Lamar rivers and leaving glacial till in the Hayden Valley.