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The Rain on Snow Effect: How Climate Change Impacted the Yellowstone Floods

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Unfortunately, Montana has had a far-from-normal spring and now start of summer.

While this time of year typically consists of idyllic sunny days, the past several weeks has showcased polarizing weather that fluctuates from multiple days of frigid rain to hot, sunny days. While this may be simply perceived as a nuisance to those trying to enjoy recreational areas and escape outdoors, these unusual weather patterns have more sinister repercussions than many people may have anticipated.

Gardiner, MT. Photo Credit: Heather White

Montana’s recent blitz of flooding has been deduced to be caused by one major perpetrator: the rain on snow effect (Popular Science, 2022).

The rain on snow effect occurs when warm rain falls upon snow, leading for the snow to melt at an accelerated rate, ultimately hastening the snow melt process.

Between June 10th-13th, the northern end of Yellowstone National park and much of southern Montana received upwards of five inches of rain, rapidly melting the snowpack of the mountains surrounding the Yellowstone River. The melting snow of the Beartooth mountain ultimately worked as the catalyst for Yellowstone’s unprecedented flooding, and this was further accentuated by other snowpack areas that melted as well.

Unfortunately, these weather events are expected to become increasingly prevalent due to the climate crisis.

Climate change means snowmelt will occur earlier in the year due to rising temperatures, resulting in worse spring flooding. Further, high altitude areas that have historically received snow will begin experiencing rain due to global warming, creating rain-on-snow events in areas and at times where they historically have not occurred. While this looming news is far from optimistic, for those in Montana and areas that have witnessed the drastic toll of climate change, let us use these experiences as a means of recognizing the threat that is climate change.

This crisis is no longer an abstract, theoretical ideology; we must do all that we can to limit our own impact to not only combat the climate crisis, but also the anxiety it spurs within us.

To support ongoing flood relief efforts in SouthwestMontana, please give to the United Way of Gallatin County & Park County Community Foundation:

Intern Hudson Cunningham-Baker is a rising senior at Hobart & William Smith Colleges. He lives in Bozeman, Montana.


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