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The shifting climate portfolio of the Greater Yellowstone Area

January 20, 2016

Knowledge of climatic variability at small spatial extents (< 50 km) is needed to assess vulnerabilities of biological reserves to climate change. We used empirical and modeled weather station data to test if climate change has increased the synchrony of surface air temperatures among 50 sites within the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA) of the interior western United States. This important biological reserve is the largest protected area in the Lower 48 states and provides critical habitat for some of the world’s most iconic wildlife. We focused our analyses on temporal shifts and shape changes in the annual distributions of seasonal minimum and maximum air temperatures among valley-bottom and higher elevation sites from 1948–2012. We documented consistent patterns of warming since 1948 at all 50 sites, with the most pronounced changes occurring during the Winter and Summer when minimum and maximum temperature distributions increased. These shifts indicate more hot temperatures and less cold temperatures would be expected across the GYA. Though the shifting statistical distributions indicate warming, little change in the shape of the temperature distributions across sites since 1948 suggest the GYA has maintained a diverse portfolio of temperatures within a year. Spatial heterogeneity in temperatures is likely maintained by the GYA’s physiographic complexity and its large size, which encompasses multiple climate zones that respond differently to synoptic drivers. Having a diverse portfolio of temperatures may help biological reserves spread the extinction risk posed by climate change.