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Yellowstone Revealed: Flooding parallels from 2004 and 2022

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Posted at 4:13 PM, Jan 03, 2023

(Editor's Note: Yellowstone National Park celebrated its 150th Birthday in 2022. In honor of that historic milestone we're bringing you a new series called "Yellowstone Revealed." These reports offer a glimpse into the park's colorful history and stories that you've likely never heard before. This is the eighth installment - Flooding parallels from 2004 and 2022.)

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK - 2022 was one to remember in Yellowstone National Park.

Historic summer flooding washed out roads and closed several park entrances for months, just before tourist season.

But it's not the first time Yellowstone has seen massive destruction. In 2004, another flood of mud was so destructive it buried people inside their cars.

A sudden evening thunderstorm dumped rain, hail, and the mountainside onto the roadway just seven miles inside Yellowstone’s east gate. Mud and boulders buried and shoved at least three vehicles near a steep drop-off, while the people inside prayed.

“And it was flowing like a river down the side of us. My granddaughter started to get a little hysterical and I told her there was nothing we could do. We were at the mercy of nature. And she says, ‘Well, what can we do?’ and I said, ‘The only thing that we can do would be to pray,’” one man said in 2004 after surviving the flood.

Help came a few minutes later, when park rangers and volunteers arrived. But 16 victims still had to wade out.

“The doors of the vehicles were trapped closed because mud was packed up against the doors. They removed people through the windows," the man continued.

That was Sunday night. By Tuesday, clearing began. But it was slow because of avalanche control. In the winter, the park prevents avalanches by shooting at them with a cannon. Shells left from 30 years of avalanche clearing posed a hazard.

“There can be any type of dud, a 105 or a 75 mm dud sitting in this debris," a park worker said at the time. "So what these guys are doing with their metal detectors is going through the debris, trying to identify is there is a dud sitting in there. They’ve actually found pieces of shrapnel.”

The road was reopened within days, unlike the road closures in northern Yellowstone that closed the north and northeast entrances all summer.

While some national media initially said the 2022 flood was caused by a sudden heatwave, Q2 Chief Meteorologist Ed McIntosh knows better.

“When it comes to melting snow and ice, rain's way more efficient than sun is. We had about three to five inches of rainfall that fell over the mountains in several days in June, melting the snow, that was the equivalent to six to eight inches of rainfall all filling up the rivers, streams, and creeks within a day," McIntosh said.

Related: Yellowstone National Park releases new video of June flooding

The 2022 floods were caused by rain-soaked snowmelt. And, the 2004 mudslide was actually caused by fire. A wildfire the previous year destroyed 17 miles of forest inside Yellowstone’s East Entrance, removing vegetation that stabilized the ground above Sylvan Pass and causing the mudslide in 2004.

So when it comes to Mother Nature and Yellowstone, nothing can be predicted or controlled.

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