Series following the fortunes of America's wildlife icons in Yellowstone National Park. In winter, Yellowstone's wildlife faces a finely balanced fight to survive.
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In the winter of 1807,
a lone fur trapper journeyed deep
into the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
Somewhere near the headwaters
of the Yellowstone river he found a lost world.
Ruled by ice, fire and brimstone.
A world of extremes that challenges all that strive to live here.
A place that has become perhaps the most treasured wilderness on Earth.
Winter in Yellowstone.
Fahrenheit or centigrade,
it doesn't really matter, at -40 the two scales read the same.
For half the year Yellowstone is frozen solid.
Yet in the middle of this ice world
there is scalding heat.
This is no ordinary place and this is no ordinary winter.
The fate of everything here lies in the hands of forces
of almost unimaginable power.
Yellowstone is deep in the heart
of the Rocky Mountains of North America,
an isolated high plateau defended by rugged peaks.
And its location is what makes it so different.
Right beneath Yellowstone
a unique quirk of geology means that molten rock from deep in the earth
comes unusually close to the frozen surface.
No-one knows why it happens right here,
but its impact is what has made Yellowstone world famous.
Yellowstone is the most extensive geothermal area on Earth.
It has over 10,000 thermal wonders
and more geysers than the rest of the world put together.
Old Faithful is Yellowstone's most well known geyser.
It shoots 5,000 gallons of water 150 feet
into the air almost every hour.
But the forces that fuel this spectacular display
have an influence far greater than we can see on the surface.
Paradoxically it's all this underground heat that helps make
the Yellowstone winter one of the coldest and toughest in America.
It's November and winter is beginning to take hold.
As it gets colder, one animal here gets stronger -
The winter is their time.
Gradually, it weakens their prey.
This is the Druid wolf pack, one of the largest and most
powerful in Yellowstone.
The pack have this bull elk surrounded.
But there's a problem.
The pack won't follow the bull into the river.
They won't risk freezing to death in the ice cold water.
What's more, now the elk's antlers are at just the right height
to keep the wolves at bay.
But it's now the elk that has a problem of his own.
Although it's only knee deep,
he can't stay in this freezing water forever.
A young female is not prepared to let him go.
But the elk is strong.
One on one, he has the advantage.
Her only support is another youngster.
They are neither strong
nor experienced enough to bring this elk down.
But it's enough to make him turn
Back to the river where he knows they won't follow.
But the longer he stays in the freezing water,
the weaker he will get.
Others before him have waited here too long
and wolves are patient.
Right now his strength is his only advantage.
He has to try again.
This time even the young wolves stay put.
Without the support of the pack they never really stood a chance,
and the pack have already decided that this early in the winter
a bull elk in his prime is just too strong.
But as the winter gets colder and the snow gets deeper,
the tables will turn.
By the end of November,
the arc of the sun barely breaks above the trees.
As its angle decreases,
so does its power.
And as the sun loses its hold over the land,
other forces begin to take over.
Yellowstone has a dark secret
that affects everything that lives here,
especially in the winter.
It's only from high above ground that we start to get a glimpse
of the true nature of this place.
Yellowstone is a giant bowl,
50 miles wide, right in the middle of the Rocky Mountains.
There's nowhere else like it.
And there's only one thing that could have created it.
Three miles beneath this frozen surface is a colossal chamber
of molten rock.
Today it powers Yellowstone's geysers,
but every million years or so the pressure in this magma gets critical
and the chamber explodes.
The last eruption, 640,000 years ago,
was more than a thousand times larger than Mount St Helens.
It blasted away mountains and ejected hundreds of cubic miles
of debris into the atmosphere, burying half the USA with ash.
The heart of Yellowstone is one of the world's biggest volcanoes.
One day, it will erupt again.
It could be today
or in another million years.
But even as the volcano is sleeping,
breathing quietly through its geysers,
it has a profound effect on Yellowstone's winter.
The volcano made Yellowstone's giant bowl, but it didn't stop there.
Ever since, the huge pressure
below the surface has been pushing it higher into the air
and as it gets higher it gets colder.
And now at its present altitude of 8,000 feet this giant bowl
simply accumulates freezing air from the surrounding mountains.
In the winter, the sleeping volcano becomes a giant deep freeze.
On the open plateau, right in the middle of this frozen volcano,
is an animal that has lived here since the last ice age.
Bison are exposed to the worst of the Yellowstone winter,
but they are built for it.
Their thick coat is such good insulation that they only need
a tiny amount of energy to keep warm,
so they slow their metabolism right down and concentrate on feeding.
With massive neck muscles they sweep their heads down through the snow
to get to the grass beneath.
But the grass has long ago put its summer goodness down into its roots
and now has about the same nutritional value as cardboard.
They will need to do all they can to save energy if they are to ward off
starvation until spring returns.
As the winter strengthens its grip, elk move into more sheltered valleys
at the edge of Yellowstone.
They don't have the bison's ability to move deep snow.
But this brings them into the territory of the Druid pack.
As the grazers are beginning to weaken,
life for the wolves is getting easier.
They are now successfully hunting about twice a week.
They even have the energy to play.
But their play has a purpose.
It fine-tunes their hunting skills
and helps bond the all-important pack structure.
Though there are 16 of them they can only hunt
an animal as large as an elk if they hunt as one.
The strength of the pack is what will get them through the winter.
Bald eagles spot carcasses from miles away.
But there is strong competition for a kill like this.
He has been shadowing the wolves and moves in now they have gone.
and even the great Yellowstone River is succumbing to the cold.
It's only where the water runs fast that it still runs free.
It looks uncomfortably cold, but then the water
at around freezing point can be 50 degrees warmer than the air.
Under the ice there's a rich supply of stone fly larvae
waiting to hatch in the spring.
Dippers make the most of
these few small windows to a liquid world before they shut completely.
Where the water stands still it is now frozen solid.
Yellowstone lake is 136 square miles
and now completely covered in three feet of ice.
A coyote travels across this frozen desert looking for something to eat.
It's a wonder that anything can survive here at all.
Hundreds of feet beneath him on the lake bed geysers erupt,
just like they do on land, and they melt holes in the ice -
the only sign that there is a lake here at all.
As the year comes to an end,
it seems hard to imagine this winter getting any tougher,
but there's another twist to the volcano's story
that is about to make things even worse.
Over time, the continent of North America has moved,
inch-by-inch, over many millions of years,
but deep down below the Earth's moving crust, the source of magma
that fuels Yellowstone's volcano has stayed put.
As the crust has moved over this volcanic hotspot,
eruption after eruption has
blasted a massive 500 mile long scar right through the Rockies.
In the winter this giant scar, called the Snake River Plain,
funnels moist air from the Pacific Ocean right through the wall
of the Rocky mountains and up into Yellowstone's deep freeze.
Here it finally freezes and falls as snow,
huge quantities of it.
Whilst everywhere around gets ten feet of snow a year, thanks to the
legacy of its volcano Yellowstone can get as much as 50.
Otters seem to thrive in the Yellowstone winter.
But now that the rivers are not only frozen but covered in deep snow
they are struggling to find open water to fish in.
They can't fish here, the fast flowing water is too dangerous.
Somehow they need to find a way past the falls.
With the falls safely behind them,
the otters are forced to keep moving on.
Open water has become a rare thing in Yellowstone.
Out on the frozen grasslands, the bison are struggling too.
This year is already the snowiest for the last decade,
snowier than many of this herd have experienced in their lives.
Now, as the snow gets deeper than a critical 4 feet,
the effort of swinging this
massive head back and forth for so little reward is becoming too much.
Though the snow front is passing through, it's followed by the wind
which now starts to scour the heart of Yellowstone.
A bison's coat can keep it warm down to -30 degrees Fahrenheit.
The wind chill is now pushing these bison to that limit.
But these are the last wild bison herds in America,
which have survived here for tens of thousands of years,
they know what to do.
To move is risky,
it will tap into their now dwindling energy reserves.
But this year it's a gamble worth taking.
Their way out is a river whose water is not frozen.
A thermal river fed by warm water from Yellowstone's geysers,
an ancient route which leads to a place where,
if they're lucky, they will be able to survive.
and night is twice as long as day in Yellowstone's deepfreeze.
The wind and the storms have gone,
but now the clear skies suck any last trace of heat into space.
As morning comes something extraordinary has happened.
All moisture in the air has turned to ice,
But this is a cruel beauty.
-66 Fahrenheit was recorded here in Yellowstone,
off the record it gets colder still.
This bison is still out on the open plateau,
the deep snow with its wind blown crust has made it almost impossible
The extreme cold will now tip the balance of survival further,
most likely too far even for a bison.
A red fox can stay in the cold heart of Yellowstone all winter,
so long as it can find food.
It's looking for mice that
survive the winter insulated beneath the blanket of snow.
The fox is light enough to move about on the delicate crust
but the mice are six feet beneath it.
It listens for the tiny sounds of its prey moving about below,
but must take great care not to scare them away.
The otter family has arrived at Yellowstone Lake.
Here they can fish in the holes kept open by the underwater geysers.
But every time they catch something...
..This coyote has been watching and waiting.
The otter dives under the ice to hide its fish from the coyote.
The coyote can't see the otter because of the thick cover of snow.
But he can hear him.
The otter emerges without the fish.
He's stashed it somewhere under the snow. But where?
A huge Yellowstone cut-throat trout.
With the help of the otters, a wily coyote can catch fish too.
The thermal river has led the bison to one of the main geyser fields.
Here the heat from below comes close enough to the surface
to melt the snow.
And a bison can graze as if it were spring.
The same volcanic forces, so massive
that they created the weather that drove the bison here,
now offer comfort.
The only problem is, the grass that the bison now relish has such
a high concentration of silica that it wears down their teeth
and it's laced with enough arsenic to slowly poison them.
For these bison it's not an easy choice to come here.
But as long as they don't have to stay here too long,
it's a lot better than facing the Yellowstone winter head on.
Incredibly, there is life that thrives here.
In Yellowstone's thermal springs
the temperature is a constant near boiling.
Yet here are huge colonies of heat tolerant microbes.
As the boiling water flows out from the centre of springs,
it cools, forming bands of different temperatures each with a different
collection of microbes with a totally different colour.
Grand Prismatic Spring is one of the wonders of the natural world.
It's thought that it was in conditions like this
that life on earth first started.
It's now February and when almost everything else in Yellowstone
is on its last legs the Druid pack is reaching peak condition.
And it's now that the young females come into season.
Hanging back from the pack is a lone male wolf.
He has no territory of his own,
but follows the pack, scavenging from their successes.
But right now food is not his priority.
The young females won't mate
with the pack's alpha male as he is their father.
So the intruder could well be in with a chance,
as long as the alpha doesn't see him.
Whilst the pack are distracted, one female sneaks away.
She won't give up the security of the pack for him,
so they meet close by in secret.
But the pack are now coming their way.
The alpha male is onto him.
He won't tolerate
any other male in his territory let alone with one of his females.
When wolves mate they become locked together for up to half an hour,
the intruder can't break free.
BARKING AND HOWLING
For now the alpha male has done enough, he's seen the intruder off
and he needs to return to reassert his position in the pack.
The intruder retreats to a precarious life in the shadows.
But whatever happens to him, so long as he was coupled for long enough,
he will have young brought up in the security
of one of the strongest packs in Yellowstone.
Since the beginning of winter,
Yellowstone's herds have been getting steadily weaker.
Now at the end of February,
the tables have completely turned to favour the Druid pack.
As February turns to March it seems like the winter will never end.
But now the clear cold days have gone.
The snow still comes, but it's a wet snow
that strips the warmth from you faster.
Now when you are right at the end of your strength.
But there is hope.
Now is the turning point of the winter.
At the spring equinox,
there are twelve hours of night and twelve hours of day.
From now on light starts to win over dark.
March is also the turning point in the history of Yellowstone.
On the first of March 1872 American President Ulysses S Grant
recognised the extraordinary wonders of Yellowstone
by making it the world's first national park.
The park's creation marked the beginning of a new era
where the world's wild places would be valued simply for being wild.
Now as the days lengthen,
the winter starts to loosen its grip on Yellowstone.
But with the end of winter also comes the end of the wolves' reign.
On a mountain peak right on the edge of Yellowstone,
footprints in the snow are the sign that a challenger has appeared
to reclaim this land.
A grizzly bear mother with her new cubs emerges from her den.
For six months snow and ice have ravaged Yellowstone,
but she has slept underground,
waking only to give birth to her cubs
and then from time to time to feed them.
As winter gives way to spring,
she leads them out into the wilderness for the first time.
In Yellowstone's great volcano,
in spite of everything the winter has thrown at them,
most have made it through.
The forces that have helped keep Yellowstone
in the grip of such a deep winter have finally let go.
It is the sun that will dominate once more.
Its power will now take over.
Bringing new life to this place.
But also it will bring new challenges...
..that all will have to face...
..In the heat of Yellowstone's summer.
Bringing Yellowstone's unique natural beauty to the screen
would have been impossible without the tireless
help of the local experts that know it like the back of their hand.
Each has their own story to tell.
I was born in the night of a blizzard and my mother has always told me that
she thinks that's why I'm so in love with winter.
Ex-park-ranger and photographer
Jeff Henry's thirty years of experience in Yellowstone
helped the BBC crew unlock some of the national park's hidden secrets.
But they could never get hold of Jeff once the snow started to fall.
Winter's by far my favourite season,
I wish I could be the reverse of a bear and hibernate in the summer,
and just wake up in the autumn
and be looking at a new winter.
I get really excited when the first snows come in the autumn.
Snow to me is a mystical, magical substance.
I've always thought that it's very
coarse of the English language to have just one word for it,
there's snow and then there's snow,
and then there's snow and then there's snow.
Fresh snow that falls from the sky, and here in Yellowstone
it tends to be light and fluffy, is vastly different
from the snow that's been on the ground for three or four months.
Three million tourists travel each year to enjoy Yellowstone's
When winter arrives, however, the crowds disappear.
But for the last thirty years Jeff has enjoyed a very unusual way
of both staying for the winter and indulging his love of snow.
His task is to stop the few buildings
in the heart of Yellowstone being completely swallowed.
Jeff becomes what is officially known as a roof shoveller.
The reason I do that is the snow loads can
sometimes at least some years become so heavy they can crush buildings
or break parts of buildings.
Jeff must clear up to three metres of compacted snow from the roofs
before it falls on anything wandering beneath including himself.
If the building were to avalanche on top of me,
it would be the end of the line for me.
From December onwards Jeff spends five months clearing
snow off Yellowstone's roofs.
Timing is critical.
If he starts a roof too early,
fresh spring snow will undo all his hard work,
too late and the roof may collapse.
This particular roof has a pitch
that's steep enough that the snow will avalanche off if it's undercut.
And to undercut the snow I have to first
dig some channels or trenches with a shovel.
After I've cut those channels I can lay a steel cable into each trench.
And I pass that cable underneath the snow pack, between the snow pack
and the shingles.
And after the snow is undercut it will avalanche off.
Oh, I have to admit I get a tremendous kick out of the work.
Little me at 190 pounds can move
untold tonnes of snow in one swoop.
Jeff is especially drawn to what are know as cornices,
the overhanging shelves of snow that cling to the edges of roofs.
It's kind of a love-hate relationship.
This lovely pattern, there's lovely lines in the snow, you can see the
major lines between major wind events but you can see
more minor lines. I guess. between more minor wind events,
it's almost like the growth rings on a tree.
It's just absolutely beautiful.
Fascinating. I can't wait to get up there and destroy it.
Cornices are especially threatening structurally,
because there's so much weight
hanging out over the edge of the building.
It's not uncommon for an eaves to break when it has a big overhang.
I love to do this work, I love to move snow,
it's a thrill, it's exciting, it's fun.
Ah, ah ha.
Honestly, there's no place else I'd rather be.
But there's one building that's a real challenge for Jeff.
The Canyon General store is approximately
50 years old, 52 years old something
in that range, and I've cleared this building for about half of its life.
It's by far the largest building that I have to do.
I often joke that it is the Bismarck of the enemy fleet.
It takes me a great many working days,
as many as 40 or 50 working days per winter.
This roof collects more snow than any other in the park,
instead of using gravity to remove the compacted snow
Jeff has to rely on sweat and toil.
But he's perfected his own methodical, precision,
Well, I try to cut the blocks large enough so that they'll be stable
when I move them across the roof,
but not so large that I can't move them.
On this particular building this year there'll be somewhere in the order
of 3,000 blocks of snow, so I always reason that if I could
save just 1% or 2% of the effort that it takes to move each block
that would be 1% or 2% times 3,000.
That's why I work in this chequerboard pattern
and move all the blocks that I just cut and I don't have to go back and
forth between the saw and the shovel that often.
I suppose in some ways
analogous to Yellowstone's wildlife in the winter
where they have to be so mindful
of their energy equation they, they cannot
consistently expend more energy than they take in.
And if they do, it's the end of the line.
50 days spent alone on a roof gives Jeff a lot of time
to just think.
Sometimes I find my imagination runs away with me, I think about how,
this snow not very long ago was
warm sea water
in the South Pacific Ocean.
In just over three or four months,
it will be water vapour
or liquid water seeping into the earth
here in Yellowstone or flowing down the Yellowstone river.
Jeff's snow-clearing work allows him
to be in the most beautiful parts of the park when no-one else is around.
And I think everybody appreciates
a little bit of solitude.
I guess that's part of the reason I do the work I do
and spend as much time as I can. in the park in the winter.
Occasionally it just seems to me
that I'm the only person for miles around and that's a special
feeling especially in the early 21st Century.
I know my parents first brought me here
when I was six months old and essentially I've spent my entire
adult life here in Yellowstone.
I don't know if I believe in destiny in the general sense but I do believe
it was my destiny to come here and to spend most of my life here.
Because of the work I do in the winter here I've had
a special opportunity, I think, to make empirical observations about
the way things have gone in terms of winter weather in Yellowstone.
I don't think there's any question that things are
warmer and drier overall than they were when I first got here.
I've always been dreading the day when I got too old to do this,
but over the last ten years or so it seemed that,
maybe Yellowstone would run out of snow before I got too old to move it.
There's good snow this year so I certainly hope it continues,
certainly hope there's snow to move in Yellowstone
long after I'm not able to do it any more.
We'll see I guess.
I like the challenge when I first climb up onto the roof and take that
first block of snow off and then when I take the last block off a roof
I certainly feel a sense of satisfaction.
I also immediately start thinking about next season when I'll be able
to do the same building again.
Yellowstone will always be my special place.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Series following the fortunes of America's wildlife icons in Yellowstone, the most extensive thermal area on Earth.
In winter, Yellowstone is frozen solid - locked in snow as deep as a house for over six months. Whether you hunt for meat, live off stored body fat or whether you simply hibernate, you need to take every advantage, however slight, to save precious energy - then you might just make it through the winter to enjoy the green grass and balmy days of spring.
As we follow the grip of winter over the course of six freezing months, we chart the fortunes of Yellowstone's wildlife in a finely balanced fight to survive. Bison use their massively powerful heads to dig through some of the deepest snow in America to reach the grass beneath. A red fox listens out for mice scurrying six feet beneath the snow before diving headfirst into the drift to snap up its prey, while otters slide through Yellowstone's winter wonderland to find any remaining open water where they can fish. All the while, as the herds of elk and bison are gradually weakened by the cold, one animal gets stronger - the wolf.
But all is not as it first seems - there are larger powers at work. Whether a wolf, a bison or an elk makes it through is intimately linked to Yellowstone's greatest secret. Sleeping beneath the ice and snow-covered surface is one of the world's largest volcanoes. In an extraordinary twist of nature, everything from the freezing winter cold to the creation of a snowstorm is determined by the power of Yellowstone's volcanic heart.