Global Warming Next Door

Dr. Jason Fridley measures climate patterns in the Smokies

When it comes to global warming and national parks, the big news has always been about Montana's Glacier National Park. Yes, it's starkly horrifying in a look-what-we-have-wrought sort of way to see those then-versus-now pictures. The park's majestic ice mountains in the early 20th century contrasted with the sad puddles there today provided a handy, easily pamphlet-able primer for non-believers only a few years ago.

But now that global warming is a matter of scientific and public consensus, Knoxvillians may do well to remember that we've got a giant, fragile nature refuge right in our back yards—the Great Smoky Mountains National Park—and there's, as yet, not a whole lot of data on climate change and its effects there.

But that's about to change. In 2005, Dr. Jason Fridley started on the park's first ever extensive ground-level climate monitoring system. Fridley, an assistant professor of plant ecology and geography at Syracuse University, began setting up a series of climatological monitors around the park. Using 175 data-loggers to record temperature, sun exposure, and precipitation, Fridley created the Smokies Temperature Network.

To people like University of Tennessee climatologist Dr. Joanne Logan, this is great news. She says temperature monitoring in Tennessee just barely serves the state's needs.

"There's probably about one or two [temperature monitors] per county, which, when you consider how different the state is from one place to another, is pretty bad," she says. "Especially in the more rugged areas." Like, for example, East Tennessee and the Smokies.

That sort of data Fridley's collecting could be especially valuable, says Logan, to convince the last dozen or so skeptics. When people see real, quantifiable evidence of warming in their own neighborhoods, worry sets in more easily.

"It can still be difficult to convince people," she says. "Now last summer, of course, that got people a little more concerned. It was about three or four degrees above normal in Tennessee. Add to that that it was very dry, and it was really awful. That got people concerned."

What we do know about the park suggests that it's an ideal place to study warming patterns. Of course, there's the National Parks Conservation Association's report that ranks the Smokies the country's most polluted national park, with a concentration of ozone that rivals some major cities. And in 2007, the park did its own survey of greenhouse gases as part of its initiation into the National Parks Service's Climate Friendly Parks program. The results were unsurprisingly negative. GSMNP, the survey found, had about 21,000 metric tons of greenhouse emissions per year, more than any other park in the country.

But the park is also a wealth of diverse micro-environments, from grassland to forest to summit, with elevations ranging from 875 to 6,643 feet above sea level. That, of course, means there's equal diversity in temperature and plant and animal species.

"My project has been to ask questions that have been asked for decades in the Smokies," says Fridley. "Even though it's just a fraction of the size of some parks in the midwest, it has more plant species in it. We've wondered for a very long time why that's true."

According to its own inventory, there are more than 1,600 species of plants, including 100 types of trees, across the park. Of those, there are nearly 400 plant species that are non-native to the area. And about 35 of those have been identified as harmful.

Christine Johnson, supervisory forester at the park, oversees the management of invasive and problematic plant species. Though she's reluctant to say there's any proven link between new species and warming, she does say that a longer, warmer growing season has been an additional headache. As new plants grow for longer periods, they can more effectively choke out indigenous species.

"If you have a vine like Japanese honeysuckle or Oriental bittersweet or kudzu overtaking native trees, they can eventually start to displace them altogether," Johnson says.

There's been a noticeable lack of research done into why the park is so diverse. And unlike this project, it's all had a pretty narrow focus.

"It's incredible how little we know about the environment of the park," Fridley says. "Almost all of the research has focused on a fairly small area of the central Tennessee side."

The park's last scientific weather survey was done in the 1950s by R.E. Shanks. Shanks, a botanist with the University of Tennessee, did a rainfall and temperature pattern study of the park, providing the first measure of how wet the Smokies are (over 80 inches of rain, on average, per year). But that was, of course, well before climate change became a common point of dinner-table discussion. And Shanks was using only five or six locations within the park.

The biggest reason for such a dearth of data, says Fridley, is that, up until a few years ago, the data-loggers were clumsy and cost-prohibitive.

"There are now these very robust and very inexpensive temperature data loggers, which are like 14 bucks," Fridley says. "If you were to do this 10 years ago, they would have cost you about $200 a pop."

They also had to wait for the technology to catch up with the wildlife. Older, larger temperature loggers—Fridley's are about the size of a nickel—were very large and attracted bears, rendering them useless in a park so well-known for its abundance of black bears.

"That's a non-trivial component of all this," Fridley says. "You have to put stuff out that bears won't find. They'll find just about anything."

In 2005, Fridley was given a fellowship from the National Parks Service to start on the study. So the only thing left to do was distribute the loggers. No problem. After all, it's only 800 square miles of some of the wettest and steepest terrain in the country. And he was trying to get as wide a sampling of climates as possible. At least Fridley had a "team," in the form of his brother Eric, to help with the legwork. Eric, who Fridley describes on his website as a "freelance adventurer," worked "essentially for free," says Fridley, but he was happy to have an excuse to take an extended hike. Fridley himself has a less enthusiastic take on the adventure.

"Most of these sensors are off-trail, and on the Tennessee side, especially, that can be a real pain," he says. Installing the first 120 sensors took months of expert-level hiking for the brothers. Though they'd usually be picked up by a shuttle on the trail, on particularly ambitious days, they'd often have to camp out overnight in the back country.

And then, once they were finally installed, the Fridleys would return several times a year to collect them.

"Just going to collect one logger, when you factor in the walk and the five minutes it takes to do the data collection, it can take hours."

The project is still in academic infancy, Fridley says. It's just now going up for peer review to determine whether the science behind it is valid. But he hopes that soon, using general historic weather data from the National Weather Service, he can track the park's climate patterns.

"What we can do is take the model and we can project it backwards in time. We can ask, ‘Have certain areas of the park warmed faster than other areas?'"

And, he says, using air circulation models developed by the International Panel on Climate Change, he will be able to predict future warming patterns at an extremely local level. This sort of information, in turn, can be used to interpret potential side effects, like incoming invasive plant species, localized tree extinction, and increased forest fires. It's the type of data that the park's employees will be able to use for their own research. And it can help someone like Johnson more effectively manage the park, as it hopefully can be used to predict problems like drought and mass tree death.

"We've watched this research with great interest," says Johnson. "It's important to document climate change, especially in the mountains where we have a number of different micro-climates."

Some of his initial findings, he says, suggest an environment too varied to yield a single, blanket temperature uptick.

Because the higher elevations get so much precipitation, they are less affected by regional temperature increases, since ground-level warming is dependent on a dry landscape. Unless, along with temperature changes, there's a major shift in mountain rainfall, higher elevations within the park, where temperatures resemble climates in Canada's Boreal Forest system, will remain largely the same, resulting in even more dramatic temperature differences within the park itself.

"There's a very real possibility that in 100 years Boreal Canada will persist, at the top. But the bottoms of the mountains will look more like Southern Florida," Fridley says. m