Yellowstone National Park Flooding No Longer a ‘Thousand Year Event,’ Park Superintendent Cites

by Jon D. B.

During Yellowstone National Park‘s press conference, Superintendent Cam Sholly spoke to the implications of 2022’s “disastrous” flood.

“Over the weekend and into Sunday night, we received about two-to-three inches of rain, with some warming temperatures… That dropped onto about five-and-a-half inches of snow that melted,” Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Cam Sholly explained Tuesday, June 14. This “caused a major flood event in most of the northern range of Yellowstone,” he told attending trades, including Outsider.

The Yellowstone Flood Event of 2022 has been called ‘unprecedented,’ ‘catastrophic,’ and ‘historic.’ But Sholly takes issue with that last term for a climate-change-based reason.

“These aren’t my words, but I have heard this is a ‘thousand year event,’ whatever that means these days, as they seem to be happening more and more frequently,” Sholly offered as he began answering reporter questions.

“I’m not sure what context to put this in, historically,” Sholly continued. “Except, from what I understand, one of the highest cubic-feet-per-second ratings of the Yellowstone River was recorded in the 90s at 31,000 CFS. And Sunday night, we were at 51,000 CFS… Just to give you an idea from the last major water event here in the park.”

‘The American West has learned to brace for supposed ‘once-in-a-thousand-year’ disasters on a regular basis’

As he diligently answered our questions, Sholly was careful to be respectful – but also direct. Yellowstone National Park staff recognize the science behind climate change. It’s not a political topic. It’s a scientific one. And YELL staff face the reality climate change presents every single day. A drastically warming climate means new snow melt patterns, more unpredictable storms, and culminating events like 2022’s flood.

Yellowstone flood event 2022: North Entrance Road, Gardiner to Mammoth (8) (Photo courtesy of Yellowstone National Park, NPS / Kyle Stone)

Both Yellowstone staff and surrounding residents have become accustomed to these “freak” acts of nature in recent decades, too. Which is a wild statement in of itself. Through historic, catastrophic fires, unprecedented droughts and floods and everything in-between, the American West has learned to brace for supposed “once-in-a-thousand-year” disasters on a regular basis.

‘So the question becomes: What will Yellowstone National Park look like in the future?’

To this end, Sholly and the YELL staff have hit a wall. What will be the point of investing millions into repairing Yellowstone National Park infrastructure if another similar event could just come in to destroy it all again? Rivers flood and carve out canyons. It’s what they do.

Yellowstone flood event 2022: Northeast Entrance Road washouts (Photo: NPS / Jacob W. Frank)

For this reason, at multiple points during his commentary, Superintendent Sholly made sure to emphasize that Yellowstone won’t be rebuilding the park’s northern section back the way it was. “I also think that this event shows that it’s important to make sure that we’re building our assets in a resilient way, understanding that the future may be different than the past,” he reiterated in his closing remarks.

Flooding events grow more likely with each year, the park believes. And already, “The landscape has changed dramatically, literally and figuratively, in the past 48 hours,” echoed Montana County Commissioner Bill Berg of the flooding event’s first two days.

So the question becomes: What will Yellowstone National Park look like in the future?

If Sholly and his phenomenal team have their way, America’s first national park will become even more resilient. Built stronger. Built with the future in mind. And the 2022 Yellowstone Flood Event will be a lesson well learned.