National Study Outlines how Climate Change Could Hurt Smokies

July 13, 2007

Climate change caused by manmade pollutants could have a devastating impact on the country’s national parks, a park advocacy group said Wednesday in a report highlighting the potential damage to Tennessee’s and North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains.

The report, “Unnatural Disaster: Global Warming and Our National Parks,” by the National Parks Conservation Association suggests the effects of global warming on the southern Appalachians may be more subtle than glaciers melting in Alaska, but just as significant.

“Appalachian parks, such as Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah, provide islands of wilderness in the most populated part of the country,” the report said. “People head for the mountains to get away from it all, to bird watch, to fish and to ski …

“But the mountains that generations have treasured and relied upon may be fundamentally diminished as a result of climate change.”

The NPCA urged Congress and the Bush administration to take action now to curtail global warming caused by greenhouse gases – by investing in renewable clean energy, retiring coal-fired power plants and setting tougher standards on power plant emissions.

“We have less than 10 years until the 100th birthday of our national park system (in 2016) – now is the time for action,” NPCA President Tom Kiernan said in a statement.

“We certainly wouldn’t dispute any of the concerns that they raise,” said Bob Miller, spokesman for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, noting the NPCA’s proposed solutions “are basically the same things we would suggest.”

In the Smokies, a 520,000-acre preserve straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, warming streams could threaten native trout – a 3.6-degree increase could eliminate 37 percent of the trout habitat, the report said.

Also vulnerable to rising temperatures are the park’s stands of high-elevation fir and hemlock forest, already struggling from acid rain, ozone pollution and invasion by nonnative insects.

These are cool ecosystems that were isolated by the last ice age. “They are basically islands of Maine and Ontario climate in the middle of Tennessee and North Carolina and they have no where else to go if those areas warm up,” Miller said.

Weather could become more extreme. Droughts could lead to more forest fires, rains could produce more flooding and landslides could threaten mountain highways, such as Interstate 40, the report said.

However, the Smokies are seeing improvement in related pollution issues involving ozone and haze, Miller said, crediting the continuing multibillion-dollar effort of the Tennessee Valley Authority to reduce coal-fired power plant emissions.

Unhealthy ozone days in the Smokies, when breathing can be difficult for some people, have dropped from 52 days in 1999 to nine last year, Miller said.

Summer visibility has improved about 10 percent – up from an average of 19 miles in 1999 to about 22 miles today, he said. “It should be 93 miles. So we are long way from natural conditions, but at least it is going in the right direction,” he said.

The Smokies still don’t have a way of measuring the impact of global warming on their inhabitants – an Appalachian equivalent to the effects of melting glaciers on polar bears.

“We are still working with other parks and the U.S. Geological Survey to look at what biological data we do have that we can use as a baseline (to measure) climate as a driver in any change that is happening to a particular organism,” Miller said.

But Bart Melton, the NPCA’s Southeast program analyst in Knoxville, said just wait.

“Global warming is a disaster in slow motion – a crisis that without immediate action will result in dramatic changes in our environment over time,” Melton said.

“Unnatural Disaster” report:

Great Smoky Mountains:

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