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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Grand Teton and Wild Weather Out West

Air Date: Week of

Jackson Lake pictured above, a remnant of glacial gouging from the Teton Range to the west and the Yellowstone Plateau to the north. It was enlarged by the construction of the Jackson Lake Dam. (Photo: Tim Lumley, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

High temperatures in the West accelerated glacial melt leading to the floods and mudslides that forced Yellowstone National Park to temporarily close this summer. David Titley, former Oceanographer and Navigator of the Navy and former Chief Operating Officer for NOAA, joins Host Steve Curwood to discuss how climate change is disrupting the greater Yellowstone area from his home in Grand Teton National Park.


CURWOOD: During the summer, many folks head out on vacation to the national parks, and from time to time we like to bring you stories about some of those places. Well, when we looked into Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, we ran into an unusual park volunteer, David Titley. Retired Rear Admiral David Titley founded the Climate Change Task Force for the US Navy and later served as Chief Operating Officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA. Admiral Titley now spends summers with his wife in an Airstream trailer at Grand Teton simply ’helping out,’ as he likes to say. And so when we called him up to ask about the park, we couldn’t help asking him about some of recent extreme weather events related to climate change, from around the world to nearby Yellowstone National Park. In June, record rains and flash floods forced Yellowstone to shut down for a while, and the entire West is concerned yet again about wildfires, including those this year in Yosemite that have threatened the Giant Sequoias. So when we reached Admiral Titley in his camper at Grand Teton National Park we just couldn’t resist talking about the weather, at first. Welcome to Living on Earth!

TITLEY: Well, thank you, Steve. Thanks so much for having me.

CURWOOD: Let's talk in a broad sense, what's happening to the world's weather in response to climate disruption? I mean, you are, at one point you were the Navy's top weather person, if I can put it that way. And right now we're looking at what, heat waves in Europe, kind of off the scale. We saw some in India, not so long ago that were way off the scale. Fires seem to be going more and more in the American West. What's going on? And you know, somebody who's been looking at climate disruption and weather for much of your career, give us a status report on where we are.

TITLEY: Well, Steve, it's tragically, and I hate to say it, but this is basically, what scientists have been telling the world to anyone who would listen for at least 30, 40 years, and we are seeing this come to fruition. And you know, many times, as I'm sure you know, when you have a climatologist or a scientist come on to the media and talk about sort of the bad things and how extreme the weather is going to get, many times people say, ‘Oh my goodness, you're an alarmist, and it's really not gonna be that bad.’ I would say, if anything, the science community has probably underestimated the speed and the intensity of the extreme events. And the really, to me, kind of scary thing is the world is not yet even at 1.5 degrees Celsius as an average above the pre-industrial limits. And our chances of, of holding to 1.5, you know, between you and me are, are very, very slim, I mean, we're just not seeing the change coming at the pace that we need. So if we're going to two or even three degrees Celsius global warming before we finally get this under control, as bad as 2020, 2021, 2022 have seemed, these will be the good old days. These will be when the weather was calm by comparison. And, again, I'm not trying to scare anyone, I'm not trying to alarm anyone, but those are just the facts. And this is just really basic physics. Physics we have understood for nearly 200 years now. And it's coming to fruition. And as I said, if anything, we have underestimated the speed and the intensity of these extreme events.

CURWOOD: And as a Navy veteran, what have you noticed particularly happening in the Navy is perhaps a function of climate disruption?

TITLEY: So, the Navy really has to look at, in my opinion, three things. They have to look at how climate is going to impact their operations. They have to look at how climate is going to impact their bases and their training ranges. I like to say that, you know, the Navy is almost by definition at sea level. We are not like some of the other services that can just move to the middle of the country and say, well okay, that's our mitigation strategy. We, we have to be at sea level, the U.S. Navy has to be at sea level. And then finally, and this is maybe the most complex one, that I'm pleased to see the U.S. intelligence community really, really starting to get serious about is: how is climate change going to exacerbate maybe already unstable situations and not great situations, but it's not great, but the U.S. maybe doesn't have to do a lot, but it sort of tips it over. And for those listeners who sort of remember the old BASF commercial, ‘we don't make things, we make things better,’ climate is what I like to say is the anti-BASF, it's like ‘we don't make things, but we make things worse.’ So what situations, you know, due to whether it's demographics or political or religious differences, I mean, the world's always had those, right? But now you add climate change pushing especially on migration, on inequality, on food security, and that just exacerbates or inflames these already existing tensions. And it can just push this into a very dark place.

CURWOOD: By the way, I think you're aware of an equipment incident related to climate disruption in the Mediterranean recently.

TITLEY: So, this is very recent and not to sound mealy mouthed, but we really, all I know is what I've read in the media, here is, but apparently an aircraft was blown off of an aircraft carrier. You know, one of our frontline fighter aircrafts was blown off of an aircraft carrier, at least according to media reports in outlets such as the Washington Post. The U.S. Navy says the incident is under investigation, but it will be very interesting to first let the investigation run and find out what actually happened there. But if there's a weather connection, the next step will be to see okay, is this just a really freak event or is there some type of climate link to that weather? Because normally, in the Mediterranean, and I've deployed there a number of times when I was in the Navy, in July, August, June, it's a pretty benign environment. So clearly this wasn't benign.

CURWOOD: And I guess the suspicion of climate interaction is there because we're seeing record heat waves now in Spain, Portugal. Italy is worried about running out of water to run its hydroelectric power stations. So, there's a lot going on with intense weather in Europe.

Grand Teton National Park is home to a variety of animals including black bears, grizzly, moose, elk and bison (pictured above). (Photo: Pedro Szekely, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

TITLEY: Absolutely. And, and as I said, if the sobering part about this is as bad as this is, 2022 will rapidly become the good old days.

CURWOOD: Talk to me a bit anecdotally about some of the extreme events that have caught your eye recently.

TITLEY: Well, one, of course, that happened only 100, 150 miles to my north was this massive flooding we had in the Yellowstone River, along the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park back in June. And it's what I call these rain bombs, these very, very intense rainfall events usually happening in a matter of hours, oftentimes on pretty small scales. So what I mean by that is just, you know, maybe over 10 square miles, maybe 50 square miles, not, not a huge geographic extent. This particular event fell on a pretty deep snowpack. It turns out in the Northern Rockies we've actually had a relatively cool, relatively wet spring. So, the snow that fell over the winter, plus some even in the spring was still on the ground at high elevations. And now we put three, four, even five inches of rain in just a matter of hours, overnight, on top of this snowpack. So you have melting snow, huge amounts of rain, all coming down into these narrow canyons in the Yellowstone River. And we've all seen the video, we've seen the video of how the roads washed out. What we didn't see quite as much is U.S. Park Rangers losing their houses, losing all their possessions. Water, power, sewer infrastructure just being washed away. It was, to me, just devastating. And it's the only thing that really compares to that as far as intensity is the speed with which Yellowstone has managed to mostly recover and actually reopen 93% of their park to the visitors. When I saw those videos, I figured there's no way they're opening up the northern part of the park this summer. And sure enough, in three weeks, they did, so, you know, kudos to everybody who's done that with the leadership of Cam Sholly and many, many others at the state, federal and local level. But, that's one that's in my mind, simply because it was only about 100 miles away from where I'm living this summer.

CURWOOD: So, the recent flooding at Yellowstone, how did that affect Grand Teton? And in general, what's going on with the climate in the Greater Yellowstone Area?

TITLEY: So, to your first question, really, we were in a supporting role. The physical infrastructure here in Grand Teton was absolutely not damaged in any ways. We did not have those extreme rainfalls, while Yellowstone, the northern part of their park was picking up three to five inches that night, we had maybe an inch or so. So, our streams and our rivers came up to, let's say, bank full, but I'm not aware of any flooding. What we did have was a whole lot of temporary refugees, when Yellowstone had to rapidly close their park and evacuate all their visitors for safety reasons. Many of those visitors came down south into Grand Teton Park. So, we had to work with the town of Jackson and others and figure out you know, really, how can you help these, these visitors out. So, many people did a lot of great things. The town of Jackson opened up their fairgrounds so that you could camp there overnight for a couple of nights until people could make other arrangements and basically move on from there.

CURWOOD: By the way, I want to just pause for a moment and ask you to describe Grand Teton National Park. Yellowstone is, is iconic, I mean, there's even a cartoon series based on it, right? I think that they call it Jellystone with a Yogi Bear or something. But, Grand Teton, in the same neighborhood, is less well known. Describe for me what's at Grand Teton and both what attracts you as a volunteer there and what attracts visitors?

TITLEY: Sure, I think Grand Teton, as you mentioned, Steve is maybe not quite as well known as Yellowstone. Although if you're coming up from the south through Yellowstone, you're going to come here. I think one of the defining characteristics of this valley is we have really these iconic mountains. And it turns out that they are formed as much because the valley floor has actually dropped as much as the mountains have increased. So we have this really flat floor. And then you go from about 6,000 feet to nearly 13,000 feet pretty much straight up. So, although they're not even the highest peaks in Wyoming, let alone in the Rockies, Colorado has, of course, a very famous 14,000 foot peaks, our mountains sort of have that almost, you know, if anybody asks, even in elementary school draw the Rocky Mountains, that's what the Tetons look like, starting from this flat valley and then just this very iconic lifting. So, this produces all kinds of recreational opportunities for hiking, skiing, cross country skiing in the winter, climbing. We have many, in fact, maybe all of the same wildlife that Yellowstone has. So we have bears, we have bison, we have elk, we have sort of all these large, large animals, as well as many of the smaller ones. We have wolves here. So there's wildlife viewing. The town of Jackson is really iconic in its own right, so there's tremendous infrastructure and services for visitors. You can raft on the Snake River, so we have water, water use and we have fishing. So it's really, you know, nirvana, if you will, for recreation. We have wide open spaces, we have these various flats, we call them, that are really just sagebrush and that gives great views. And it also lets visitors, when we have animals out on those flats, be able to see those animals as opposed to some of the other parks where you have so many trees, you don't always get those kinds of views. So, this particular park has, has attracted my wife and myself for decades. And we just find it to really be therapeutic, if you will, to be out and hiking in these mountains on, on the trails here. It just never gets old to us.

CURWOOD: I like it that you can see the bears at a distance. And for that matter, it's great to be able to see the bison gathered in, in herds, again, without getting too close.

TITLEY: Exactly. And we all know the park has regulations on how close people should be to the animals and that we're not disturbing their behavior. But those opportunities exist in, in this park. And frankly, you know, quite a few of the other Western parks as well.

CURWOOD: David Titley, you, you can tell us, what's your favorite day hike there at Grand Teton?

David William Titley is a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University and the founding director of their Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk. He was also NOAA's chief operating officer from 2012 to 2013. (Photo: Christopher Michel, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

TITLEY: There are so many, right, this is like asking which, which of your childs are the, are the favorite there. So, there are really iconic hikes here around Jenny Lake, maybe the most visited place in the park or one of the most visited for sure. And you can go up to Inspiration Point and, and we have many, many visitors who go up to Inspiration Point, it's maybe a mile on the what we call the west side, going up into the mountains. And it's a wonderful hike. But a lot of visitors kind of stop at Inspiration Point. They made it, they gained the roughly 1,000 feet elevation, take their pictures of Jenny Lake in the valley and then they come down. If you keep going into that canyon, it's called Cascade Canyon. I tell people it looks like Switzerland on steroids. I think it's one of the most gorgeous places and it's, you're not going to have it by yourself. It's still a pretty popular hike. But it's just absolutely gorgeous. And you can walk and you've done most of the elevation. After Inspiration Point, it really flattens out. So you can maybe go another three, three and a half miles until the trail really starts going up again. And if you're lucky, you might see a moose, you might see a bear, you might see a fox. You're definitely gonna see just eye dropping scenery of mountains and canyons. So, that's a, that's a great hike. But we have so many hikes in this park. So, really you can't go wrong and I would just ask somebody you know, check with a, check with a ranger, check at the Visitor Center. Tell that ranger what you're looking for, and he or she is going to give you some great options.

CURWOOD: Retired Admiral David Titley is the founder of the U.S. Navy Task Force on Climate Change and former Chief Operating Officer for NOAA, and now spends his summers as a volunteer in Grand Teton National Park. David Titley, thanks so much for taking the time with us today.

TITLEY: Well, thank you, Steve. It's been a pleasure. I appreciate you having me on.



Learn more about Grand Teton National Park

Watch David Titley’s Ted Talk

National Geographic | “Historic Yellowstone Flooding Brings Renewal Despite Destruction”

Learn more about the Greater Yellowstone Climate Assessment

The Washington Post | “Nasty Weather Blew a Jet Off an Aircraft Carrier. How’s That Possible?”


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