NATIONAL NEWS

Yellowstone floods reveal forecasting flaws in warming world

Jul 7, 2022, 1:32 PM
The view from Chopper 5 showed just how much damage flooding caused at roads in Yellowstone Nationa...
The view from Chopper 5 showed just how much damage flooding caused at roads in Yellowstone National Park. (KSL TV)
(KSL TV)

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The Yellowstone National Park area’s weather forecast on the morning of June 12 seemed fairly tame: warmer temperatures and rain showers would accelerate mountain snow melt and could produce “minor flooding.” A National Weather Service bulletin recommended moving livestock from low-lying areas but made no mention of danger to people.

By nightfall, after several inches of rain fell on a deep spring snowpack, there were record-shattering floods.

Torrents of water poured off the mountains. Swollen rivers carrying boulders and trees smashed through Montana towns over the next several days. The flooding swept away houses, wiped out bridges, and forced the evacuation of more than 10,000 tourists, park employees, and residents near the park.

As a cleanup expected to last months grinds on, climate experts and meteorologists say the gap between the destruction and what was forecast underscores a troublesome aspect of climate change: Models used to predict storm impacts do not always keep up with increasingly devastating rainstorms, hurricanes, heat waves and other events.

Yellowstone businesses await the return of visitors

“Those rivers had never reached those levels. We literally were flying blind not even knowing what the impacts would be,” said Arin Peters, a senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service.

Hydrologic models used to predict flooding are based on long-term, historical records. But they do not reflect changes to the climate that emerged over the past decade, said meteorologist and Weather Underground founder Jeff Masters.

“Those models are going to be inadequate to deal with a new climate,” Masters said.

Another extreme weather event where the models came up short was Hurricane Ida, which slammed Louisiana last summer and then stalled over the Eastern Seaboard — deluging parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York with unprecedented rainfall that caused massive flooding.

The weather service had warned of a “serious situation” that could turn “catastrophic,” but the predicted 3 to 6 inches (8 to 15 centimeters) of rain for New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania was far short of the 9 to 10 inches (23 to 25 centimeters) that fell.

The deadly June 2021 heat wave that scorched the Pacific Northwest offered another example. Warmer weather had been expected, but not temperatures of up to 116 degrees (47C degrees) that toppled previous records and killed an estimated 600 or more people in Oregon, Washington state, and western Canada.

The surprise Yellowstone floods prompted a nighttime scramble to close off roads and bridges getting swept away by the water, plus rushed evacuations that missed some people. No one died, somewhat miraculously, as more than 400 homes were damaged or destroyed.

As rock slides caused by the rainfall started happening in Yellowstone, park rangers closed a heavily-used road between the town of Gardiner and the park headquarters in Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming. It later washed out in numerous places.

The rain and snowmelt were “too much too fast and you just try to stay out of the way,” Yellowstone Deputy Chief Ranger Tim Townsend said.

If the road hadn’t been closed, “we probably would have had fatalities, unquestionably” park Superintendent Cam Sholly said.

“The road looks totally fine and then it’s like an 80-foot drop right into the river,” Sholly said.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland was scheduled to visit Yellowstone Friday to survey the damage and ongoing repairs.

Within a matter of hours on June 12, Rock Creek, which runs through the city of Red Lodge and normally is placid and sometimes just ankle-deep, became a raging river. When the weather service issued a flood warning for the creek, the water already had surged over its banks and begun to knock down bridges.

By the time the warning was sent, “we already knew it was too late,” said Scott Williams, a commissioner for Carbon County, Montana, which borders Yellowstone.

Red Lodge resident Pam Smith was alerted to the floods by something knocking around in her basement before dawn. It was her clothes dryer, floating in water pouring through the windows.

Smith says her partner keeps track of the weather on his computer and they were aware rain was coming and that the creek was running high. But they were not aware of the flooding threat when they went to bed the night before, she said.

In a scramble to save belongings including her violins, the music teacher slipped on the wet kitchen floor and fell, shattering a bone in her arm. Smith recalls biting back tears and trudging through floodwaters with her partner and 15-year-old granddaughter to reach their pickup truck and drive to safety.

“I went blank,” Smith said. “I was angry and like, ‘Why didn’t anybody warn us? Why was there no knock on the door? Why didn’t the police come around and say there’s flooding, you need to get out?’”

Local authorities say sheriff’s deputies and others knocked on doors in Red Lodge and a second community that flooded. But they acknowledged not everyone was reached as numerous rivers and streams overflowed, swamping areas never known previously to flood.

While no single weather event can be conclusively tied to climate change, scientists said the Yellowstone flooding was consistent with changes already documented around the park as temperatures warm.

Those changes include less snowfall in mid-winter and more spring precipitation — setting the stage for flash floods when rains fall on the snow, said Montana State University climate scientist Cathy Whitlock.

Warming trends mean spring floods will increase in frequency — even as the region suffers from long-term drought that keeps much of the rest of the year dry, she said.

Masters and other experts noted that computer modeling of storms has become more sophisticated and is generally more accurate than ever. But extreme weather by its nature is hard to predict, and as such events happen more frequently there will be many more chances for forecasters to get it wrong.

The rate of the most extreme rainstorms in some areas has increased up to a factor of five, Masters said. So an event with a 1% chance of happening in any given year — commonly referred to as a “one in 100-year” event — would have an approximately 5% chance of happening, he said.

“We are literally re-writing our weather history book,” said University of Oklahoma Meteorology Professor Jason Furtado.

That has widespread implications for local authorities and emergency officials who rely on weather bulletins to guide their disaster response approaches. If they’re not warned, they can’t act.

But the National Weather Service also strives to avoid undue alarm and maintain public trust. So if the service’s models show only a slim chance of disaster, that information can get left out of the forecast.

Weather service officials said the agency’s actions with the Yellowstone flooding will be analyzed to determine if changes are needed. They said early warnings that river levels were rising did help officials prepare and prevent loss of life, even if their advisories failed to predict the severity.

Computer-based forecasting models are regularly updated to account for new meteorological trends due to climate change, Peters said. Even with those refinements, events like the Yellowstone flooding still are considered low-probability and so often won’t make it into forecasts based on what the models say is most likely to occur.

“It’s really difficult to balance that feeling that you’ve got that this could get really bad, but the likelihood of it getting really bad is so small,” Peters said. He added that the dramatic swing from drought to flood was hard even for meteorologists to reconcile and called it “weather whiplash.”

To better communicate the potential for extreme weather, some experts say the weather service needs to change its forecasts to inform the public about low-probability hazardous events. That could be accomplished through more detailed daily forecasts or some kind of color-coded system for alerts.

“We’ve been slow to provide that information,” North Carolina State University atmospheric scientist Gary Lackmann said. “You put it on people’s radars and they could think about that and it could save lives.”

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

National News

Award-winning author Salman Rushdie is awake and "articulate" following the stabbing attack in New ...
Aya Elamroussi and Mark Morales, CNN

Salman Rushdie awake, ‘articulate’ after stabbing attack in New York, official says

Award-winning author Salman Rushdie is awake and "articulate" in his conversations with investigators as he remains hospitalized for severe injuries following a stabbing attack in western New York Friday, a law enforcement official with direct knowledge of the investigation told CNN Monday.
1 day ago
Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks during a weekly news conference at the U.S. Ca...
Geneva Sands, CNN

Secret Service notified Capitol Police on January 6, of threat directed at Pelosi

The US Secret Service, on the evening of January 6, 2021, notified the US Capitol Police that it had discovered an online threat directed toward House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
1 day ago
Rapper A$AP Rocky appeared in a Los Angeles Superior courtroom on Aug. 17, 2022 and pleaded not gui...
Associated Press

A$AP Rocky pleads not guilty to firearm assault charges

Rapper A$AP Rocky has pleaded not guilty to felony assault with a firearm charges stemming from a 2021 confrontation in Hollywood.
1 day ago
Raspberry Rally goes on sale in early 2023. (Girl Scouts of the USA)...
Jordan Valinsky, CNN Business

Girl Scouts add a new raspberry cookie to the lineup

The Girl Scouts are adding a new, raspberry-flavored cookie to the lineup.
1 day ago
[File] Pride Flag...
Associated Press

Wisconsin school board votes in favor of pride flag ban

A Wisconsin school board has voted in favor of a policy that prohibits teachers and staff from displaying gay pride flags and other items that district officials consider political in nature.
1 day ago
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America/Getty Images)...
MIKE STOBBE, AP Medical Writer

CDC director announces shake-up, citing COVID mistakes

The head of the nation’s top public health agency is shaking up the organization with the goal of making it more nimble.
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

tips how to quit smoking...

7 Tips How to Quit Smoking | Quitting Smoking Might be One of the Hardest Things You Ever Do but Here’s Where You Can Start

Quitting smoking cigarettes can be incredibly difficult. Here are 7 tips how to quit smoking to help you on your quitting journey.
Photo: Storyblocks...
Blue Stakes of Utah 811

Blue Stakes of Utah 811: 5 Reasons To Call 811 Before You Dig When Working in Your Yard

Call before you dig. Even at home, you could end up with serious injuries or broken utilities just because you didn't call Blue Stakes of Utah 811.
Days of...
Days of '47 Rodeo

TRIVIA: How well do you know your rodeo? Take this quiz before you go to the Days of ’47!

The Utah Days of ’47 Rodeo presented by Zions Bank is a one-of-a-kind Gold Medal Rodeo being held July 20-23, 25 at 7:30 PM. The Days of ’47 Rodeo How well do you know your rodeo trivia? Take the quiz to test your know-all before heading out to the Days of ’47 Rodeo at the […]
cyber security through multi factor authentication setup...
Les Olson IT

How multi factor authentication setup helps companies stay safe

Multi factor authentication (MFA) setup is an important security measure that every company should implement for their workers. It’s also wise to install it for your personal and home accounts.
...
Lighting Design

Check out these stunning lamps with stained glass shades

Lamps with stained glass shades are statement pieces that are more than simply aesthetic. They also meet a functional requirement: to light up a room.
Address Bar of internet browser shows internet access...
AARP Utah

Utah voters 50+ support increased access to Internet

The AARP surveyed Utah voters aged 50 plus about internet access and if they support the expansion of broadband, especially in rural areas currently lacking it.
Yellowstone floods reveal forecasting flaws in warming world