Too Hot to Handle?


We’ve heard about the threat of global warming for decades, but for those of us who live in the Appalachian Mountains, the danger may seem far away. Amidst all the talk of melting ice caps and flooded coastal cities, of droughts on the Great Plains and melting glaciers in Rockies, you don’t hear much about the possible affects on the southern mountains. But scientists have been thinking about what climate change would mean for our region, and some of their findings are quite surprising.

Although global temperature fluctuations have been a natural part of Earth’s history, the current rise in temperature is not. While some still argue over what the data show, “there is a growing consensus among scientists that climate change is real,” says Dr. John Peine, a scientist with the US Geological Survey at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. With our continued and growing dependency on oil and other fossil fuels, scientists are discovering that global warming may be happening more quickly than was first thought, which would have major impacts here in Appalachia.

On a global scale, the physical evidence of climate change from melting polar ice caps, thawing permafrost, and more frequent and severe storms is undeniable. All of these events have consequences that could influence the temperature shift even more severely. Melting polar ice caps, for example, could cause alterations or even the complete cessation of ocean currents that regulate much of Earth’s weather. Already, we are seeing the effects of thinning polar ice on animals like the polar bear, a species which scientists predict may go extinct within fifty years if we do not find ways to reverse the global warming trend. The thawing of permafrost releases trapped methane, a greenhouse gas that could accelerate global warming even more precipitously than carbon dioxide.

In other parts of the globe, more severe and frequent storms could affect millions of people through flooding and property loss. Sea levels are predicted to rise, putting some East Coast cities under water. Diseases and pests which now thrive in tropical regions would make their way further north. This is currently the case with West Nile virus, which has become entrenched in the Appalachian region.

Ancient Refuges from Climate Change

The Appalachian region is home to more species of plants and animals than almost any other temperate forest on Earth. During the last ice age, much of Appalachia was covered in spruce-fir forests, similar to those now found on the Canadian border. Remnants of this ecosystem exist within the Appalachian highlands, and many species have adapted very specifically to the area. This cool, moist habitat with its dense canopy, vernal pools, and highland bogs is home to a host of salamanders, small mammals, birds, and insects found nowhere else in the world.

During ancient times of climate change, such as ice ages, entire ecosystems like the spruce-fir forests survived by gradually migrating up and down the Appalachians.
Because of this, Dr. Reed Noss, Professor of Conservation Biology at the University of Central Florida, recommends that climate refuges like the southern Appalachians “should be a preservation priority, for being more likely to save flora in the future.”

But if global warming continues, this precious ecosystem will be entirely lost, as temperature and species patterns shift. Not only will rising temperatures make it impossible for these species to survive in their current home, but their ancient migration routes up and down the mountains are now blocked by roads, towns, and other man-made barriers. The one-two punch of global warming and habitat fragmentation will lead to the extinction of many species that might have survived past periods of warming by slowly moving north.

Current Effects

Already, we are seeing these effects on animals like the federally endangered Shenandoah salamander (Plethodon shenandoah). On Hawksbill Mountain in Shenandoah National Park, researchers have discovered that red-backed salamanders (P. cinereus) are displacing the Shenandoah salamander largely due to climate change.

The northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) is a species that came to Appalachia during a previous ice age. It is already endangered in Virginia and is threatened with extinction in Appalachia if warming continues. Additionally, it is quite certain that the spruce-fir moss spider (Microhexura montivaga), a species found only in the Fraser fir and red spruce forests of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, will go extinct if these high-altitude Appalachian forests vanish because of global warming.

Even as species like the Shenandoah salamander, northern flying squirrel, and spruce-fir moss spider disappear, pests and diseases are becoming more rampant. As winter weather patterns shift, pests adapt and their life cycles remain uninterrupted. The exotic hemlock wooly adelgid may be able to spread further inland into colder areas due to an increasingly moderate climate. This is also the case with pine bark beetles, which, although native to our region, have wreaked havoc on conifers partially as a result of to the last decade being the warmest on record. Fire ants have already spread as far north as the Great Smoky Mountains, and are projected to continue their northward march with the help of global warming.

Major storm events that have occurred throughout the region in the last decade have been devastating to many communities. Tornadoes, once a rare event, are becoming commonplace in southwestern Virginia. Landslides and washouts have closed major highways, including Interstate 40, which serves as the main artery through the region. Such effects from flooding also have implications for resource extraction activities in Appalachia, like mountaintop removal coal mining. As storms and flooding increase, coalfield communities face many increased threats, including the failure of numerous earthen dams holding back toxic sludge and the instability of valleys now filled with rock that once made up the mountaintops.


Such problems are slated to worsen in the coming century, affecting everyone from every walk of life. Though some crops may grow better in warmer temperatures or with increased carbon dioxide, recent climate models predict farmers will lose 1/3 of their crops if they don’t prepare for climate change. Cotton farmers may prosper in the hotter climate, but all other farmers will suffer great crop losses.

The increasing spread of diseases that affect plants and animals is another problem. Some scientists theorize that greater warming could allow Phytophthora, the family of organisms responsible for epidemics like the Irish potato famine and sudden oak death syndrome in California, to infect the Appalachian oak forests. It is now known that Phytophthora cinnamomi, an exotic pathogen introduced in the early 1800s, was largely responsible for the death of the American chestnut in southeastern forests long before the chestnut blight destroyed the rest of these majestic trees. Even so, Phytophthora species can be found quite commonly in forest soils throughout the world. Could certain species of Phytophthora become virulent in warmer temperatures? More research is needed to truly understand the biology of these organisms, but it is certain that warming temperatures have allowed some species to spread beyond their natural ranges.

In essence, the most extreme predictions of global warming point us towards a world overburdened with disease, famine, severe storms, and loss. Whether or not these predictions come true, do we really want to risk ourselves and the place we call home?

Education is the Future

Despite its melodramatic hyperboles, “The Day After Tomorrow” is worth the rental if only as a cautionary tale. Based on scientific extrapolations of ocean current loss due to global warming, this movie at its outset demonstrates the unwillingness of politicians and citizens to listen to the appeals of concerned scientists. This message, of course, is lost by the end of the film, but the seed of the moral lesson is there.

Perhaps there is still time to chart a different future. Several cooperatives are already working in Appalachia towards more sustainable energy sources, like wind and solar power. Energy efficiency, conservation, and new technologies all offer hope for the future.

Ultimately, education is our key to a sustainable future. Global warming is already happening. Now, it’s just a question of how we can lessen the severity of the problem. “There is a tipping point when it will be too late to reverse global warming. The policy changes and technology necessary to reverse this trend are within our grasp.” Dr. Peine notes. “The missing element is education and outreach—Appalachian Voices’ essential mission.”


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