Snow, floods and wildlife in peril: grueling winter leaves Yosemite scarred | California

It’s been a winter few in Yosemite valley will ever forget.

After wildfires left the national park’s dramatic views shrouded in smoke over the summer, winter brought a series of historic storms that left the region inundated with snow. The deluge buried homes, cars and fire hydrants, chewed into stretches of winding mountain roads and downed trees along the park’s slopes.

As conditions intensified, officials opted to close the park, forced to turn away the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come from all over the world to take in its iconic scenery.

Park personnel worked for weeks to dig the valley out of shoulder-high piles of snow, repair crucial infrastructure and prepare for the imminent threat of melt-off flooding.

A stop sign is surrounded by a pile of snow.Pin
Snow in Yosemite national park is still piled overhead in some areas even as the weather turns sunny and crisp. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon/The Guardian

But on a crisp and sunny morning last week, a surge of visitors trickled back into the valley. The park had partially reopened in mid-March, just in time for spring break. A churn of cars circled across the valley floor and pedestrians dotted the roads and meadows as the snow ceded ground to soil below.

“It isn’t as bad as we thought it would be,” said Nicole Torres, who had booked her family’s spring break eight months out, long before it became clear that California would be in for a wild winter. “Getting some sun and not having to worry about snow chains – it has been really nice.”

“Even though there is snow everywhere it feels like the quintessential California day,” added Stephanie Sanchez, who was there with the Torres family.

Jason and Shannon Smith, who own Airbnb’s tucked into the slopes, had also ventured into the valley to see how the park fared. The couple was surprised by the ease in access, given the severity of the weather that had hit them in recent weeks.

Near their home and business, hundreds of power poles were toppled in the storms. The couple lost power for weeks, Jason said, and had to cancel bookings.

Guard rails block a road where the hillside washed away in winter storms.Pin
Intense winter storms caused landslides that damaged infrastructure in Yosemite. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon/The Guardian

The danger hasn’t completely passed. Water is still cascading around three sides of their home, which is sandwiched between storm runoff, a drainage ditch, and the Fresno River. Jason’s worried about the snow still waiting to melt, and whether the area will get hit with another late-season storm. Even a smaller-scale event could wreak havoc on the sodden hillsides, he said.

This year’s winter offered just a taste of what is possible when the weather grows more intense, he added. “I don’t want to see it,” he said. “From what we went through, with power poles failing and people just living out of the pantries with whatever they had.”

Park officials share their fears. Threats posed by the enormous snowpack, supercharged with water content, loom large.

“This winter has been one for the record books and California keeps on setting new ones,” park officials said in a post online, noting that the snow along its Tioga Pass had measured higher than 162in. Just eight years ago, they added, it reached only 11.5in at the same time and place.

Even on a balmy day in the park, signs of severe impact are showing, and to scientists and conservationists it’s clear that the rich and diverse ecosystems are taking a hit.

“Yosemite is ground zero for climate change,” said Beth Pratt, who, along with being a local resident and regular among the wilderness areas of Yosemite, serves as the California regional executive director for the National Wildlife Federation. Wildlife is feeling the weather whiplash, she said: “We go into this winter, coming off of drought for a decade. I have never seen anything like it.”

A stand of trees are bare and some broken. A mountain in the background is dusted with snow.Pin
The diverse ecosystems in Yosemite national park show the signs of severe impact. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon/The Guardian

She pointed at the Sonoran blue butterfly, which typically seeks refuge among the alpine succulents. This year, because of washouts, the essential host plants are in dangerously short supply, Pratt said. Just months ago, during a brutal heatwave that pushed temperatures past 114F, there weren’t enough flowers for the butterflies.

The pica, a resilient, and incredibly cute rodent that lives at high elevations, is also struggling with the intense shifts, she noted. They live under the snow in the winter but this season may prove too much. When the heat comes, the fast-melting snow could drown them. “Every species is impacted by this whiplash” she said, “and at some point they won’t be able to adapt.”

And, as the weather warms and camping season starts to peak, the park and its inhabitants will once again be contending with another pressing dilemma: crowds.

“Yosemite’s visitation pattern has changed – it is a year-round park,” said Neal Desai, a senior director at the National Parks Conservation Association. He worried that with other recreation areas across the Sierra Nevada range socked in with snow into the summer, even more people will push into the snow-cleared sites. “Yosemite valley is going to be a sacrifice zone.”

He and his organization have been pushing the park to commit to a reservation system that would stem the surge of tourists and enable better planning.

Yosemite has opted out this year, but officials say they are working on implementing a permanent solution.

Visitors to Yosemite national park enjoy a clearing that is mostly devoid of snow.Pin
As snow in Yosemite national park has melted, visitors have returned and experts have warned that the surge of tourists must be stemmed. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon/The Guardian

Desai pleaded for more urgency. “It is how we will actually steward this place in the face of climate change,” he said. “The thing that is fully within their control is managing their visitation – and it is their biggest problem.”

“We are over our carrying capacity,” Pratt agreed. “These parks are supposed to be the most protected places on the planet. They are really the only place where the wildlife and ecosystems are supposed to have privacy.”

For now, the gates will be open to those who can snag a campsite or room in the lodge. The snow will melt and the next round of dangers will start to take shape. The shifts will be on full display for crowds coming in as the weather warms.

Pratt hopes those who visit will be able to see the importance of protecting the lands along with the creatures who call them home.

“Yosemite has more biodiversity than Yellowstone – and to that point, there is more wildlife in peril,” she added. “We are risking this incredible center of life in Yosemite and the Sierra with our climate impacts.”

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