Another Yellowstone Flood in 2023? Sholly Thinks Not

Another Yellowstone Flood in 2023? Superintendent Sholly Thinks (and Hopes) Not

Written by on May 10, 2023

On Friday, May 12, the only remaining entrance to Yellowstone National Park – the South Entrance near Jackson – will officially open for the Summer 2023 season. The Dunraven Pass, the only other interior road in the park still closed, will open on May 26 along with the Beartooth Pass.

The opening of Yellowstone’s five entrances is a celebratory sign of the season for the park’s gateway communities. But this year, there’s some trepidation mixed with elation. After all, all the park’s roads and entrances were open by the end of May 2022 – and a month later, the entire park was closed after one of the most devastating natural disasters in decades.

After a record-setting winter season, it’s only natural to fear warming temperatures melting immense amounts of snow could lead to the kind of event the park experienced in June 2022. Could it happen again in 2023?

Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly knows the park better than anyone. Between a pandemic and a 1-in-500-year flood event, he’s had one of the most significant tenures of any superintendent since he rose to the position in June 2018.

During the 71st Annual National Parks Day in Cody on Monday, May 8, Sholly gave a presentation to the assembled civic and business leaders. During that presentation, he reviewed the circumstances that created the events of June 12 and 13, 2022.

Snowfall during the winter season of 2021-2022 was sporadic. But when it fell, it fell hard, especially in spring.

“We had more snow in April and May last year than in January, February, and March combined,” Sholly said during the May 8 presentation.

On the days leading up to mid-June 2022, four days of rain dropped up to five inches of precipitation, melting four to five inches of snow. In that same period, temperatures rapidly fluctuated from the fifties and sixties to below freezing.

All that water started pouring into the Yellowstone River all at once.

The last time there was a major flood in the park, the maximum flow of the Yellowstone River was 30,000 cubic feet per second (c.f.s.) The website SnowFlo says the maximum discharge along the river is currently at the Yellowstone River at Glendive, MT, reporting a streamflow rate of 22,400 c.f.s.

On June 14, the Yellowstone River was flowing at 52,000 c.f.s.

Had it not been for the foresight of the park’s Public Safety crew, there would have been “loss of life,” as Sholly put it. The fact that not a single life was lost in the historic flood event is an incredible testament to the crew’s skills.

That unbelievable flow of those two days led to the destruction of massive segments of the North and Northeast Entrance Roads and forced Yellowstone to completely close for over a week. The North and Northeast Entrances were nearly completely closed until temporary road repairs were finished that October.

Now, warm weather’s rolling into Yellowstone, and there’s even more snowpack starting to melt in the mountains. Could another flood of devastating proportions occur in June 2023?

In Superintendent Sholly’s opinion? Always possible, but – based on current conditions – not very likely.

His cautious confidence comes from what happened then and what’s happening now. More than anything, two factors contributed to the June 2022 flood more than anything – the intense deluge of rain and warm temperatures, both occurring rapidly, melting the snow. Signs of a troubling spring were evident long before the flood occurred.

In a KODI interview, Sholly says temperatures are moderate, and the snowpack – while immense – is melting evenly this spring. Anything’s possible, but the chance of another 1-in-500-year flood event this season is relatively low.

However, Sholly warms Yellowstone visitors that the park’s waterways are still flowing fast and high. Even during moderate conditions, the water can still be dangerous.

Safety and caution saved lives in June 2022. Visitors in Yellowstone National Park should heed the same and not be lulled into a false sense of security this spring. Part of the park’s allure is its unblemished landscapes and wildness – and danger’s always close at hand.

For up-to-date information, check out the live road status map (above), call (307) 344-2117 for recorded information, or sign up to receive Yellowstone road alerts on your mobile phone by texting 82190 to 888-777 (an automatic text reply will confirm receipt and provide instructions). Before traveling, it’s also a good idea to:

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