The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Fire, fog, floods: Scientists probe climate-change impacts in Smokies

Written by

iiif service gmd gmd390 g3902 g3902g np000243 full pct 12.5 0 defaultMany climate-change related issues have appeared since publication of this vintage map of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Library of Congress

Invasive insects are among the vanguard of noticeable climate changes in America’s most-visited national park

GATLINBURG — Ants scurry beneath the carpet of last year’s leaves in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The native ants are busy spreading the seeds of violets and bloodroot, preparing a new carpet of spring wildflowers to draw thousands of visitors.

But the local insects aren’t alone under there. They have become prey to venomous Asian needle ants that also prowl the leaf litter.

These invaders dine on termites, other ants and insects, while stealing habitat from them. Unlike invasive fire ants, needle ants can live in pristine forests and build large colonies with hundreds of queens. But like fire ants, needle ants have a painful sting that can trigger an allergic reaction. 

Climate change is expected to make it easier for invasive species like needle ants to upset the delicate balance of this temperate rainforest full of rare plants and animals. That’s just one example.

A needle ant study is one of many underway in GSMNP that either reflect climate change or attempt to learn more about how it could affect the park. Research presented at a March science colloquium measures rainfall, drainage, and shifting plant and animal populations. Other scientists are creating models to understand climate change impacts in the Smokies.  

Early results reflect some of the same big-picture outcomes highlighted in new reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Rising heat and extreme weather are driving species to higher latitudes and elevations, pushing many to the limits of their ability to adapt. 

This winter and spring, IPCC has been releasing reports from major working groups as part of its sixth major climate assessment. A February report projected that if global temperatures increase 2 degrees by 2100, up to 18 percent of all species on land will face a high risk of extinction. “The impacts we see today are appearing much faster, they are more disruptive and more widespread than we expected 20 years ago,” the report stated.

Foggy mountain breakdown

The biggest threat from climate change in Great Smoky Mountains National Park may be changes to precipitation, said Paul Super, science coordinator for the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center. Funded by the National Park Service, the program is housed in the park and approves all research projects there. Most of the research is funded through universities and grants.

Super said climate change might be shifting species from south-facing slopes to the north or limiting them to stream valleys, shrinking their populations to small refuges. 

For example, “Trout fishermen might not be able to find trout if they are being pushed up in elevation by warm temperatures below and into upstream waters tainted with acid rain,” Super said. He noted that mountain recreation activities such as trout fishing drive millions of dollars to local communities.

Those communities are also affected by changes in mountain cloud cover, which influences temperature and the rain entering stream systems needed for drinking, irrigation and recreation, Super said. Drought or flooding caused by climate change could cause significant harm outside park boundaries. Super said the park is working with several North Carolina communities to develop a flash flood warning system. 

A new model is being developed to help park managers plan for these kinds of major events, make safety decisions about when to close roads, and pinpoint where to check for damage afterward, Super said. Ana Barros, a University of Illinois professor and  emeritus professor of Duke University, expects to finish this hydrology model for all the park’s watersheds later this year. Once turned over to the park, it can be updated over time to reflect changes in vegetation and ground conditions. 

For example, Barros and her team ran simulations using the Chimney Tops fire that burned 11,000 acres within the park in 2016. The model was able to project water flow and soil moisture changes after the blaze.

The tool can also be used to project possible impacts of different climate scenarios across the park. Barros and her team have been gathering precipitation information in GSMNP for almost 15 years. “We started measuring rainfall and then quickly discovered we needed to be measuring fog,” she said. “In dry years, 50 to 75 percent of water input into the system is low clouds and fog.” That helps keep the ecosystem resilient — as long as drought isn’t accompanied by hotter weather, as it was in 2014, interfering with cloud formation. 

Jason Fridley is a biology professor at Syracuse University who studies soil moisture in GSMNP. He says the cool, cloudy ecosystem that gave the Smokies their name protects them from some of the warming effects seen in dryer mountain ranges like the Rockies. 

“But all bets are off if it starts to dry out,” he added. That could happen in response to massive disturbance of vegetation, such as a large fire. “Or there could be some kind of tipping point where the effects are so great … you get positive feedback between warming and drying,” he said. “If the vegetation changes dramatically, we could enter some new state that does not look like the Smokies. That’s what I worry most about.”

Fridley has placed soil moisture sensors at different elevations and in various forest types in the park. “One thing that really surprised me is how quickly rain effects vanish, suggesting that the frequency of rainfall is really important,” he said. “I would like to go through some climate scenarios that cut the rain frequency in half but double the amount, which is kind of the rule of thumb about what we’ll see with climate change.”

Creating a baseline

Other studies in GSMNP are gathering baseline information about plant and animal populations to use for comparison as the climate changes. 

The park hosts a National Ecological Observatory Network site through the National Science Foundation. The project includes an instrument tower near Gatlinburg as well as sampling plots throughout the North Carolina portion of the park, all collecting standardized information since 2015 about the populations of small mammals, mosquitos, ticks and vegetation, Super said. 

Scientists also track trends in specific plant and animal populations. For example, Eric Shershen, a doctoral student in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee, studies high-elevation mosses at places like Clingmans Dome and Mt. LeConte. He’s returning to plots sampled about 15 years ago for comparison. Shershen plans to use tiny data loggers to monitor temperature and humidity on the moss mats, with the goal of predicting how these will change in the future. 

But the majority of climate change research in GSMNP focuses more broadly on ecosystems, which affect many species at once, Super said. After all, it’s not always clear what role each plays in the ecosystem. 

For example, more than 2,000 beetle species live in the park, Super said. “Which might we really be able to do without? We don’t know,” he said. “We might discover a certain beetle was very important for controlling something that kills millions of board feet of timber from the surrounding national forest.” Another might produce an ingredient for a future life-saving drug.

Invasive impacts and diversity

Invasive species are an inreasing threat because they can reduce native plant and animal diversity. “Drier or at least warmer conditions moving into our lowest elevations would potentially open them up to new invasive species,” said Super, pointing to the recent arrival of armadillos. 

Daniel Malagon, a Clemson University doctoral student studying the needle ant invasion, has determined the Tennessee side of the park is the most vulnerable to them because of its lower elevation and milder winter weather. 

“Noticing the stark difference between the invaded forest in South Carolina and seeing it just starting in the national park got us concerned,” he said. “It’s really apparent where they have invaded: You don’t see any other ants.”

Needle ants both eat native ants and steal their habitat. This harms a native ant species responsible for dispersing seeds for one out of every three plants in GSMNP.

Starting in 2019, Malagon and his team collected hundreds of leaf litter samples from the forest floor in the park, cataloging the type and number of ants in each. They checked undisturbed woods as well as areas near visitors centers and campgrounds, where they found some needle ant supercolonies. 

“They have up to hundreds of queens per colony, so the ability of the colonies to expand is really disturbing,” Malagon said. He said he plans to request permission to try killing needle ant colonies with poisoned termites.

On the upside, Malagon’s team concluded that about 65 percent of the park has a good chance of remaining a refuge for native ants. 

Super called the Smokies “a library of resources” we still don’t fully understand, so we might not even recognize what we lose through climate change. “Keeping a healthy ecosystem with the kind of diversity that we have in the Smokies is extremely important for the long term,” he said.


Discover Life in America presentation by Daniel Malagon and Andrew Kanes about needle ants


Rate this item
(3 votes)

Related items

  • Take a moment at a wayside to think of African Americans in the Great Smokies

    GATLINBURG — Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials unveiled two new waysides at Mingus Mill on May 23 as part of the larger African American Experiences in the Smokies project.  

    “The new signs and the African American Experiences in the Smokies project are so important to tell the untold stories of Black people in the region,” said Superintendent Cassius Cash.

    Vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and poet Eric Mingus performed a new piece of music that speaks to and of Mingus Mill, its location, and the people who lived there, including his ancestors. A Santa Fe-based musician, Eric has recently re-connected with his family’s story that is rooted in the park through the African American Experiences in the Smokies project. Eric is descended from Daniel Mingus, a formerly enslaved carpenter, and Clarinda Mingus, the daughter of Daniel’s enslaver. 

    Hellbender Press previously reported on the Smokies project.

    One of the new waysides tells the story of the nearby Enloe Slave Cemetery, where several African Americans are interred. The other wayside tells the story of Eric’s father, legendary jazz bassist Charles Mingus Jr., and his family.  

    The African American Experiences in the Smokies project is supported by the Friends of the Smokies and Great Smoky Mountains Association, which help fund research of the historic presence and influence of African Americans in the southern Appalachian Mountains from the 1540s through today.

    — National Park Service

  • 2016 Smokies wildfires: Six years later, the good and the bad come into focus as natural recovery continues
    in News

    COVER 1208 GatlinburgsInferno1Journalists and park officials document damage from the November 2016 wildfires that killed at least 15 people and left hundreds of dwellings and businesses in ruins. Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press via Knoxville Mercury

    How the 2016 Great Smoky Mountains National Park wildfire affected salamanders and other life, six years on

    GATLINBURG  The disastrous Chimney Tops 2 wildfire of 2016 occurred some six years ago, but researchers are still looking at its ecological effects.

    The Discover Life in America 2023 Colloquium brought together researchers this month from different fields and universities to present findings on research in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

    Researchers presented on many topics, ranging from trout to the history of the Mingus family in the park.

    One such presentation, the first of the day, from William Peterman, associate professor in wildlife ecology and management at Ohio State University, focused on the effects wildfires had on salamander populations, which he described as negative.

    Other presenters touched on the wildfire’s effects as well, including its effects on vegetation and its beneficial effects on the diversity of bird species.

    “Smoky Mountains is the self-proclaimed salamander capital of the world,” Peterman said. He focused his study on the plethodontid family of salamanders, which breathe through their skin.

    “Kind of think of them as a walking lung,” he said.

  • Park releases Smokies air-tour plan

    Commercial air tour routes over Great Smoky Mountains National ParkCommercial air tour routes over Great Smoky Mountains National Park

    GATLINBURG — Great Smoky Mountains National Park and other federal officials completed a management plan to formally regulate aircraft tours over the park.

    Don’t expect much to change in the skies over the park: The plan allows 946 air tours a year by select helicopter operators, unchanged from the average number of annual flights recorded from 2017 to 2019. Flights may only operate from two hours after daybreak to two hours before sundown.

    “The plan establishes measures to protect park resources including natural and cultural resources, preservation of wilderness character, and visitor experience,” according to Smokies officials. Flights will be restricted to six routes over the park, and must maintain an elevation above 2,700 feet of the highest terrain. Cades Cove is off limits, as are several historical sites, including the Walker Sisters Cabin.

    Air tours, often to the dismay of many hikers and others, have occurred over the park for most of its history, but no formal flight guidelines were in place.

    “We appreciate the tireless work that went into the development of the Smokies air tour management plan,” said Superintendent Cassius Cash. “The plan incorporates several improvements that allow continued air tour activity, while at the same time better protectingthe wilderness character of the backcountry, wildlife populations, natural soundscapes, and the visitor experience in historic areas like Cades Cove.”

    Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian members provided notable input into the development of the plan, which will go into effect in 90 days from Dec.3.

    Hellbender Press previously reported on development of the Smokies aircraft management plan.

  • 5 big threats to the world’s rivers
    in News

    fresh water Conservation FisheriesA biologist with Conservation Fisheries surveys a stretch of Little River near Walland, Tennessee to determine fish viability and identify rare species for transplantation. Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press

    Human activities have imperiled our waterways — along with a third of freshwater fish and other aquatic species

    This story was originally published by The Revelator.

    If we needed more motivation to save our ailing rivers, it could come with the findings of a recent study that determined the biodiversity crisis is most acute in freshwater ecosystems, which thread the Southern landscape like crucial veins and arteries.

    Rivers, lakes and inland wetlands cover 1 percent of the Earth but provide homes for 10 percent of all its species, including one-third of all vertebrates. And many of those species are imperiled — some 27 percent of the nearly 30,000 freshwater species so far assessed by the IUCN Red List. This includes nearly one-third of all freshwater fish.

    How did things get so bad? For some species it’s a single action — like building a dam. But for most, it’s a confluence of factors — an accumulation of harm — that builds for years or decades.

  • Brutal Hurricane Ian was just one of budding global weather emergencies at the time
    in News

    overflight storm ianCatastrophic damage to the Sanibel Island Causeway is shown in this NOAA overflight after Hurricane Ian absolutely demolished most of Fort Myers Beach, Florida.

    Evidence mounts that climate change is creating monster storms as death toll climbs in Ian’s wake

    This story was originally published by The Conversation.

    FORT MYERS BEACH — When Hurricane Ian hit Florida and killed at least 100 people, it was one of the United States’s most powerful hurricanes on record, and it followed a two-week string of massive, devastating storms around the world.

    A few days earlier in the Philippines, Typhoon Noru gave new meaning to rapid intensification when it blew up from a tropical storm with 50 mph winds to a Category 5 monster with 155 mph winds the next day. Hurricane Fiona flooded Puerto Rico, then became Canada’s most intense storm on record. Typhoon Merbok gained strength over a warm Pacific Ocean and tore up over 1,000 miles of the Alaska coast.

  • Citizen scientists are taking stock in Smokies, and the inventory keeps increasing
    in News

    1 smokies most wanted infographic credit Emma Oxford GSMA

    This story was provided by Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

    Next demonstration on Thursday, Oct. 20

    GATLINBURG — Great Smoky Mountains National Park is celebrating the success of a community science project led by nonprofit partner Discover Life in America (DLiA) called Smokies Most Wanted. The initiative encourages visitors to record life they find in the park through the iNaturalist nature app. DLiA and the park use these data points to map species range, track exotic species, and even discover new kinds of life in the park. 

    “iNaturalist usage in the Smokies has skyrocketed from just four users in 2011, to 3,800 in 2020, to now more than 7,100 users,” said Will Kuhn, DLIA’s director of science and research. 

    In August, the project reached a milestone, surpassing 100,000 records of insects, plants, fungi, and other Smokies life submitted through the app. Among them are 92 new species not previously seen in the park.

  • There’s a whole world in the dirt beneath your feet
    in News
    Dust bowl soilThe Dust Bowl of the 1930s resulted in the displacement of tons of soil in the midst of a drought similar to the one that grips the Southwest today. Library of Congress

    Dirt is far from just dirt. It’s a foundation for life.

    This story was originally published by The Revelator.

    Look down. You may not see the soil beneath your feet as teeming with life, but it is.

    Better scientific tools are helping us understand that dirt isn’t just dirt. Life in the soil includes microbes like bacteria and fungi; invertebrates such as earthworms and nematodes; plant roots; and even mammals like gophers and badgers who spend part of their time below ground.

    It’s commonly said that a quarter of all the planet’s biodiversity lives in the soil, but that’s likely a vast understatement. Many species that reside there, particularly microorganisms such as viruses, bacteria, fungi and protists, aren’t yet known to science.

  • Parking fees set for Smokies; camping costs will increase
    in News

    IMG 6088You might have to pay to park at some of these trailheads in Great Smoky Mountains National Park starting next year. These old trail badges are displayed in Fontana Village on the south side of the Smokies. Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press

    Smokies parking fees will generate $7 million in revenue for park infrastructure

    GATLINBURG — Getting outside just got more expensive.

    Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials announced Monday the park would proceed with plans for a $5/per day parking pass required of all cars staying in one spot for more than 15 minutes.

    Weekly passes will be $15, and annual passes will be available for $40, according to a release from the park service. Fees will also increase $3 for backcountry and campground permits, meaning campers and backpackers will have to fork over $8 a night.

  • ORNL researcher models fire’s growing footprint in a changing climate
    in News

    COVER 1208 GatlinburgsInferno3Wild turkeys forage in charred hardwood forest soon after the 2016 Gatlinburg fires, which moved from the Smokies to developed areas in Sevier County. An ORNL model predicts wildfire threats will increase in the Southern Appalachians because of climate change. Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press via Knoxville Mercury

    ORNL report: Local wildfire danger will likely loom larger because of climate change

    OAK RIDGE — This cruel summer, the Southern Appalachian region is already baking in above-normal temperatures and basking in poor air quality. 

    Air temperatures in Knoxville flirted with 100 degrees on July 6, which were well above average and prompted the National Weather Service to issue a heat advisory for much of the metropolitan area.

    It’s hard to definitively link a heat wave to global warming, but one oft-cited consequence of climate change is the growing intensity of wildfires, even in the traditionally moisture-rich Appalachians. The range of climate change effects is difficult to pin down, but one constant in the study of climate change is an expected increase in overall temperatures, which can power wildfires via both fuel increases and volatility.

  • SACE released its annual utility decarbonization tracking report, and it’s not pretty
    in News

    methane leaksBloomberg reports that methane leaks from the natural gas sector may be far worse than estimated by the EPA. While replacing coal-fired power plants with natural gas ones reduces air pollution it may not help at all with climate change because methane is 30 times more effective as a greenhouse gas than CO2.  Image source: Kayrros SAS

    Report: Many utilities are not reducing carbon emissions despite public assurances to the contrary

    KNOXVILLE — Global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025 and experience rapid and deep reductions to avoid a potentially catastrophic future, according to a new analysis by air-quality and climate advocates. Emissions must reach net zero by the early 2050s to limit warming to 1.5 degrees (C) in order to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

    Many utilities and municipalities have acknowledged this dynamic, but the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy s fourth annual “Tracking Decarbonization in the Southeast" report highlights that current utility resource plans are not in line with this overarching target. Obstacles to getting utilities on track that are discussed in our report include: increasing reliance on fossil gas, underutilizing energy efficiency, and placing limitations on popular technologies such as rooftop solar. There’s still a lot of work to do before any Southeast utility is on track to decarbonize.