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Teton Pass landslide may be a preview of what’s to come in other mountain towns

Drone footage slows a huge chunk missing from a U-shaped bend in the highway.
Wyoming Department of Transportation
The Wyoming Department of Transportation is currently building a temporary bypass around a collapsed section of State Highway 22.

A landslide recently wiped out part of the highway on Teton Pass, tripling drive times for thousands of people commuting between Northwest Wyoming and Eastern Idaho.

And experts say the disaster near Jackson Hole could be a preview of what’s to come across the Mountain West.

Mohammed Ombadi, a climate scientist and professor at the University of Michigan, said mountain towns are hotspots for extreme rain and snowmelt due to warming temperatures.

“With continued global warming, we expect more landslide events, soil erosion, flooding particularly in mountainous regions,” Ombadi said.

On Teton Pass, experts say high temperatures and rapid snowmelt triggered the June 8 slide, since the soil was oversaturated with water.

It’s unclear if climate change played a part in this recent slide, but Ben Leshchinsky, an Oregon State University professor who specializes in landslides, said climate change could play a part in others.

“I mean, we expect less snowpack, more rapid snow melt. That can drive landslides,” Leshchinsky said. “We expect more frequent wildfires, and in higher elevations, that can affect landslides.”

Leshchinsky said all of these factors, in addition to heavy rainfall, can affect the stability of hillsides and cause infrastructure to fail.

He added that our aging highways are increasingly vulnerable. The Teton Pass was built in the 1960s.

“So it's a reminder that you know, our highways are our lifeline, and maintaining them and hardening them is of utmost importance,” Leshchinsky said.

He added that states can also monitor land that’s slowly moving with new technologies, though it’s still tough to say when it’ll turn into a big slide like the one on Teton Pass.

Ombadi said communities should see that disaster as a “wake-up call” to the kinds of damages predicted to come with a warming climate.

The state of Wyoming could take an economic hit because of the landslide, with over a third of the state’s travel and tourism tax revenue in 2022 coming from Teton County.

“I think those kind of economic impacts resulting from this failure can really pale in comparison to the ones that could arise in a warmer climate,” Ombadi said.

The highway over Teton Pass remains closed as the Wyoming Department of Transportation continues work on a detour they hope to open by the end of this week.

Funding for that construction is coming in part from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which announced last week its allocating $6 million for the repairs.

A preliminary estimate says the detour and the rebuild will cost about $30 million dollars.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Hanna is the Mountain West News Bureau reporter based in Teton County.

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