Appalachia and Our Changing Planet

By Bill Kovarik

Appalachia has always been a refuge for biodiversity.

During the last ice age 20,000 years ago, the Appalachian mountains were a Noah’s Ark for thousands of species until the glaciers receded.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, many of our own species trooped off to spend their summers in the mountains, flocking to resorts around Asheville and Boone, N.C., and the Blue Ridge in Virginia, to escape malaria and summer heat along the coasts.

Modern refugees from urban stress still seek solace in the forests and if sea levels rise as quickly as scientists are now predicting, another wave of refugees can be expected in a generation. What will be left of the forests, native species and water resources?

Can Appalachia survive climate change? Will it continue to serve its timeless role as a refuge for biodiversity? Dozens of major studies are underway to answer these questions. The initial results, as one scientist said, are grim.

Trail Hikers Will See Changes

To get an idea of how climate change may affect Appalachia, consider the Appalachian Trail. Fifty years from now, hikers will probably have to cope with higher temperatures, dried-up streams and more forest fires.

“For the present, water isn’t that serious a problem,” said Lenny Bernstein, who studied climate change for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “But if those supplies dry up, it’s an entirely different challenge.”

During the 2007- 2008 drought, portions of the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina had to be closed. “Was that an unusual event or a harbinger of the future?” Bernstein asked.

According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, climate history shows the southeast has become hotter and drier since the 1970s. In the past 30 years, for most of the Appalachian region, five to 15 fewer days of freezing have been recorded per winter.

Climate models project continued warming and far less rainfall.

“It is disconcerting,” Bernstein said. “If those projections are real, and that’s where the future is, then 2008 is not going to be unusual.”

More and Larger Forest Fires

Projections of severe climate change show much drier conditions over the southern end of the Appalachian Trail, with 8 inches less rainfall every year. Eventually, it might not be safe or even possible to hike the entire trail from Georgia to Maine.

A dramatic rise in large forest fires nationwide over the past 30 years is documented in the Quadrennial Fire Review (QFR) of 2009. Where there had been about 50 large fires (over 50,000 acres) in the 1979 – 1989 period, there were over 225 nationwide in the 1999 – 2008 period.

“The effects of climate change will continue to result in greater probability of longer and bigger fire seasons, in more regions in the nation,” the QFR report stated. “Drought effects in the southeast, southwest and west will make these areas especially vulnerable in terms of fire risk.”

Biodiversity Under Siege

As summers grow hotter and drier, it’s likely that Appalachia’s stressed forests will harbor fewer birds and animals, and that a migration of many species to cooler climates will take place. However, its not easy to separate climate impacts from the already serious impacts of habitat encroachment and mountaintop removal coal mining.

From flying squirrels to bog turtles, Appalachia provides a home to an extraordinary diversity of species. It is considered to be one of the world’s great centers of biodiversity. Only two years ago, biologists found an entirely new genus of salamander – the first new vertebrate genus to be discovered in the United States in half a century. Salamanders, however, are on the decline. In a 2010 journal article, JR Milanovich and colleagues found that climate change threatens “significant projected loss of habitat for many salamander species that currently occupy the Appalachian Highlands.”

Native trout are also endangered, according to a “grim prognosis” by Patricia Flebbe, research biologist for the U.S. Forest Service. Between 53 and 97 percent of wild trout populations in the southern Appalachians could die out as streams become warmer, Flebbe and other Forest Service researchers said. Trout are coldwater species that depend on relatively low stream temperatures to survive. “Trout are already at the southern limit of their range,” Flebbe said. “Suitable habitat area will shrink and become much more fragmented as the climate becomes increasingly warm.”

Forest service researchers say that climate change will likely pose a severe threat to Fraser fir, Balsam fir and Carolina hemlock of the central and southern Appalachians. These species occur in higher elevations and are also currently under siege from exotic pests like the woolly adelgid. Other tree species — the Table Mountain pine, Red spruce and Striped maple — may survive in the north, but face extinction in central and southern Appalachia as a result of changing climate conditions.

Many studies on the impacts of climate change focus on single species, but broader studies of ecosystems also reflect high risks. The types of animals that will be hardest hit are those that are narrowly distributed in habitat, according to Mark Schwartz and colleagues writing in the journal Climate. Focusing on trees and birds of the eastern United States, the scientists found that extinction vulnerability increases for species that are not as widely distributed.

It is this vulnerability which gives some grave pause about the future of Appalachia in the face of our changing climate.

* Charts from United States Global Change Research Program,

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  1. Ananya on January 5, 2019 at 7:15 pm

    are there any other ideas of how it might look like in the future?

  2. Pedram on February 22, 2018 at 7:56 am

    How has the policies of the Bush administration, lead to the loss of biodiversity in the rivers of appalachia

  3. James on June 1, 2016 at 8:15 pm

    No, icetrout, overpopulation is not the primary driver of climate change and in fact, the earth is not overpopulated. Man-made climate change, like other human caused environmental problems like water pollution and the issue of what to do with radioactive waste, are not a result of overpopulation, but rather the result of the greed, and wanton disrespect for the natural world acted upon by certain segments of the human population. If the 6 plus billion human beings alive on the planet today were to live in such a way as to show love and respect for our common home, we would not be facing the dire future our children and grandchildren are doomed to live in.

  4. jessmurr on July 18, 2013 at 10:57 am

    Overpopulation is without a doubt the root of this. There would be no “anthropogenic” consequences if the human population was the same as it was 2000 years ago. But alas, industrialization and medical technologies have brought greater life expectancies. So how do we humans, plagued by our empathy and our myopic perspectives, face this issue? I could not look another person into their eyes and tell them they may not experience the joys of having a family and raising a child. We can criticize those who have many children, but the reality is that most of the people bearing more than two children come from low income communities and developing nations. Instead of pointing fingers, let’s take the humanistic approach: provide educational opportunities and birth control options to women all over the world. On a personal level, those of us in developed nations must seriously reevaluate how we use technology. We must push for cleaner energy sources and change how we consume energy. If we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, there many be hope for climate stabilization.

  5. Jack Arcane on March 30, 2013 at 10:23 pm

    icetrout is right. Overpopulation is our biggest problem. It is ignorant to think humans see this as an issue and plan to stop having kids to solve it. It’s always someone else who is to blame. What’s the big deal if we have 2-3 kids? The problem is everyone takes that attitude!

  6. icetrout on October 27, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    If your so worried about human cause climatic change, than why aren’t you worried about the major cause of human caused climate change -HUMAN OVER POPULATION???

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