BIG SKY, Mont. - The 22 million acres that make up the greater Yellowstone area is one of the last remaining large and nearly intact temperate ecosystems on earth, and it's key to providing water to millions of people.
But a new climate assessment shows water availability may be one of the biggest challenges affecting the area now -- and in the future.
"Big picture, the changes that we're seeing and the changes that will come are increasing temperatures annually," Charles Wolf Drimal, of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said.
He said the greater Yellowstone area could actually see an increase in precipitation but would come mostly as rain and not snow, which means less storage later into the year.
"Three of the major river systems that flow out of the greater Yellowstone area feeds over 60 million Americans in the western United States," he said. "That includes the Snake (River) system, which flows into the Columbia (River), the Green River which flows into the Colorado (River) and then on the east side the Yellowstone (River) which flows into the Missouri (River) system."
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Scientists have looked at data going back about 800,00 years and concluded that the past few decades are likely the warmest ever for the area.
Snowfall has decreased by nearly 2 feet since 1950, and communities in the area could see between 40 and 60 more days per year with temperatures above 90 degrees by the end of the century.
"Water is life. The future of our amazing fish and wildlife population, the future of our industries is dependent on clean water and water availability," Drimal said.
Conservationists, geologists, and other scientists are worried about sustaining the beauty and making sure the water system works, so humans can continue to get it, wildlife can thrive, and fields can be watered.
It's a delicate juggling act and only time will tell, seeing if it all works out.