Archived Outdoors

Climate Change vs. National Park: New report predicts environmental crises while Park works on solutions

By Michael Beadle

More acid rain and invasive insect pests. Fewer trout in mountain streams. More “code red” days with poor air quality and less visibility.

These are some of the dangers threatening the Great Smoky Mountains National Park if efforts aren’t made now to curb toxic chemicals from spewing into the earth’s atmosphere.

That’s the warning from a new report released last week by the National Parks Conservation Association, which predicts dire consequences for the nation’s national parks if measures are not soon put in place to offset the effects of global warming.

While the majority of scientific evidence now supports the idea that man-made pollution in the form of greenhouse gases is contributing to a gradual warming of the earth and overall climate change around the planet, the national park system is particularly at risk as severe weather such as flooding, drought and hurricanes threatens to destroy these sanctuaries of delicate ecosystems, according to the NPCA’s report.

In the 48-page document titled “Unnatural Disaster: Global Warming and our National Parks,” the NPCA presents its first comprehensive overview of how climate change could drastically affect the nation’s park system from the Everglades to Yosemite to the Arctic National Park and Preserve.

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In the Appalachian region, which includes the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, warmer streams could decrease trout populations, the report states. In addition, more rain could produce flooding, landslides and silt that would clog streams along the Appalachian Trail. Other global warming effects could mean more “code red” days and poor air quality as well as more invasive insect pests such as the wooly adelgid, which has decimated some 95 percent of the once prevalent Fraser fir stands in the Park.

“This has huge impacts on the biological diversity in the park,” said Greg Kidd, a Waynesville resident who is senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

But all is not lost. Armed with this knowledge of what might happen, the public also has the power to protect these parks for future generations to enjoy.

“The thing to do is to begin acting now,” Kidd said, recommending everything from using more energy-efficient fluorescent light bulbs to driving more fuel-efficient cars to appealing to legislators for tougher regulation and enforcement when it comes to limiting carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

“What we need more than anything is an increase in efficiency,” Kidd said.

While some policy makers debate over how soon climate change would create serious environmental disasters — some look 50 years ahead, others a century — Kidd argues that this is the wrong way to look at the problem. He compares the situation to a leaky roof. If your roof is leaking, you want to fix it immediately rather than wonder how long you can wait before there’s severe damage to your house.

“The bottom line is we need to start acting now,” he said. “As we wait, the problem snowballs.”

The last Ice Age pushed a number of northern species into the Southern Appalachians, so today’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to some species that are normally found in much colder climates like the Himalayas and Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. What is more, there are some species that only live in the Great Smokies Park and nowhere else on earth. The rare and endangered Rugelia nudicaulis of the Aster Family, for example, has been found living near Clingmans Dome and nowhere else outside the Park. Scientists are studying to see if these rare species, which tend to live in the higher elevations of the Park, will be affected by climate change.

“We are in climate change,” said Keith Langdon, a biologist with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But what kinds of changes may occur and how climate will affect species in the Park still needs to be studied, he added. Langdon said he couldn’t cite any particular species within the Park that had fallen victim to the effects of global warming.

Langdon said that Jason Fridley, an assistant professor in biology at Syracuse University, is conducting one interesting study right now within the Park. Fridley has been setting up temperature sensors throughout the Park to measure temperature changes at various elevations. When the research is completed, scientists will be able to see if temperature changes affect species at certain elevations.


Clearing the Air and Going Green

According to Jim Renfro, air quality specialist for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the overall air quality in the Great Smokies has been improving over the past 10 years after worsening in the 1980s and early ‘90s. The last two years have been worse than previous years this decade, but it’s hard to tell if that’s a trend, Renfro said.

“We’re still a long ways away from where we need to be,” Renfro said.

Measuring air quality — and improving it — can get pretty complicated. First of all, there are a number of different factors to measure including ozone, visibility, carbon dioxide, sulfate, nitrogen oxide and mercury. The Park keeps seven air quality stations to monitor these factors.

Federal, state and local standards for cutting pollution emissions can go a long way in helping improve air quality, Renfro explained, but a 50 percent reduction in emissions doesn’t necessarily translate into a 50 percent reduction in acid rain or ozone. That’s because emissions react with the natural composition of the air to create a new brew of chemicals that become ozone or acid rain. And the way the weather acts in the mountains, a high-pressure system can stubbornly stick around for days in the summer months and keep pollutants stagnating in the air, creating a public health hazard and poor visibility. Mountains can also trap pollutants in the valleys like soup in a bowl. So even when governments and businesses try to keep tabs on pollution being expelled into the atmosphere, weather can worsen the situation.

Still, Renfro pointed to many different initiatives that are helping to clean the air in the Smokies — from the Tennessee Valley Authority installing scrubbers at its plants to the passage of the North Carolina Clean Smokestacks Act to stricter federal emission guidelines for cars and trucks.

“Partnering has been a huge key,” Renfro said. “We’re getting a lot more done that way.”

Meanwhile, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been ratcheting up its green-friendly programs over the past few years to cut back on carbon dioxide emissions by installing renewable energy posts and promoting better fuel efficiency within its own fleet of vehicles. According to Bob Miller, spokesman for the Great Smokies Park, the park now has a fleet of six hybrid vehicles including four 2006 Toyota Prius models donated by Toyota. The Park’s heavy-duty diesel vehicles now run on biodiesel (B-20 in Tennessee and B-50 in North Carolina), and on the Tennessee side of the park, another 12 electric-powered vehicles are in operation.

At Clingmans Dome, a solar-powered generator keeps a radio transmitter and air quality monitor running, and at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, solar power heats the bathroom water. A soon-to-open science lab near the Park’s Gatlinburg entrance will be LEED-certified with environmentally friendly building materials and an energy-efficient design. Miller said the Park has also submitted a grant application to purchase four additional electric-powered vehicles that will be used at the Smokemont, Cataloochee and Deep Creek sites.


Predictions and Solutions

While the 517,000-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park holds the honorable distinction of being the most visited park in the nation, a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve with more tree species than in all of Europe, this island of wilderness with its old-growth trees and a biodiversity unlike any on the planet also holds the dubious distinction as one of the most polluted parks in the country in terms of air quality.

According to the NPCA’s report, which is rooted in dozens of scientific studies, if carbon dioxide levels continue to rise in the Great Smokies Park, red and flying squirrels would no longer be able to live here. An increase in just 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit could eliminate more than a third of the Appalachian region’s trout species. Droughts, like the one currently affecting Western North Carolina this summer, could lower birth rates among trout, while floods — another erratic outcome of climate change — could flush trout downstream and out of their normal habitat where other species would have a competitive edge with food resources. Still another troubling result of pollution is acid rain, which can weaken trees so they either die off or become more susceptible to invasive insect pests, the NPCA report states.

Since 1900, sea levels worldwide have risen 10 times faster than over the past 2,000 years, and 11 of the last 12 years rank as the hottest on the planet since 1850, the report explains, adding that warmer winter temperatures are throwing off the seasons, altering flower blooms and migrations of birds and fish. In the Arctic north, melting permafrost and ice caps mean shrinking habitats for ice creatures like polar bears. If warming trends continue, Glacier National Park is expected to lose its remaining glaciers by 2030, and the Everglades National Park will be submerged under rising sea levels, the report said.

The NPCA report also recommends cutting greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by the year 2050. It urges shutting down the oldest and dirtiest polluting coal-fired plants, conserving more energy, being more efficient with energy, and switching to renewable energy sources such as solar, geothermal and wind power wherever possible.

To those skeptics who continue to doubt that global warming and climate change are caused by man-made pollution, Kidd invites the public to check out the scientific studies and even volunteer to collect data as part of “citizen science” programs.

For example, the Appalachian Trail Megatransect, the National Park Service and various groups and individuals are working in collaboration to monitor climate change along the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail. These kinds of programs allow average citizens a chance to develop personal experiences with their environment, Kidd said.

“They see for themselves what’s going on,” Kidd said. “It’s hard to kind of deny what these people are finding.”

For more information about the NPCA’s report, go to the Web site at


What other National Parks are doing:

Cabrillo National Monument in Southern California

• Uses electric vehicles for all travel within the park.

Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area

• Pennsylvania and New Jersey officials have agreed to reduce fuel consumption in the park by 15 percent over three years and set a goal of decreasing energy demand by 25 percent.

Everglades National Park in Florida

• Encourages the use of bicycles and non-motorized boats.

• Increased the fuel efficiency of park boats and vehicles.

• Rewards contractors who run more than half of their vehicles on alternative fuels such as biodiesel.

Joshua Tree National Park in California

• Replaced its old diesel-fueled generator system with cheaper, solar paneled photovoltaic-hybrid system that costs ten times less to operate and cuts down carbon emissions by 15 times its previous annual output.

Yosemite National Park in California

• Shuttle vehicles include 18 electric-diesel hybrid buses.

Learn more about the Climate Friendly Parks program by going to the Web site

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