Apocalypse not yet


• Extensive loss of open space
• Hotter summers, harsher storms
• Biodiversity declines

Speculating about Asheville’s environmental future entails at least as many questions as answers. Will carbon-dioxide emissions continue rising? Will privately owned open space and forestland continue to be cleared for development at the current rate? Will fossil fuels remain our major energy sources? Inevitably, some pretty big “ifs” come into play.

This land is my land

For several years now, Land for Tomorrow has been sounding the alarm about North Carolina’s rapid (and escalating) loss of working farms and forests. “About 100,000 acres [of open space] are being developed each year,” says Kate Dixon, executive director of the statewide coalition of land trusts and nonprofits. If this trend continues, by 2027 an additional 2 million acres—or 3,125 square miles—will have been cleared to make way for residential or commercial development statewide.

And with the state’s population projected to increase by about 50 percent by 2030, Dixon fears that even more land will be lost. “The way that development patterns are going, people are building on much larger parcels,” she notes.

A report released in April by Environment North Carolina, a statewide environmental advocacy group, projects that the Asheville metro area will lose 8 percent of its forestland, 41 percent of its cropland and 10 percent of its open space by 2027. The mountain region as a whole will see a 22 percent increase in developed area, the report predicts, saying, “Future population [growth] will virtually guarantee that large tracts of land are developed, coinciding with large losses of open space.”

3.6 degrees of separation

Scientists are only beginning to grasp the depth of biodiversity in places like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the lands surrounding the Blue Ridge Parkway, notes Greg Kidd of the National Parks Conservation Association. But that wealth of biodiversity could be lost as parks weather the effects of global warming in the coming decades, says Kidd, who is senior program manager at the nonprofit’s Blue Ridge field office.

“There are already so many examples of exotics that are rapidly causing a decrease in the biodiversity that’s there,” he notes. “Exotics often move into areas that have been disturbed, and they’re introduced into these areas without the complement of predators or competitors. With an increase in severe weather patterns like storms, runoff scars could be the type of foothold exotics would take advantage of.” Even now, for example, the woolly adelgid poses a serious threat to both the Eastern and Carolina hemlocks.

Native trout are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. If the average global surface temperature rose by 7.2 degrees, for example—which the U.N.‘s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts could occur by the end of this century—80 to 90 percent of the trout habitat in Virginia and North Carolina could disappear, according to a report released by the National Parks Conservation Association. And if temperatures rose 3.6 degrees, the report notes, 37 percent of the trout habitat in the region could be eliminated.

Meanwhile, another problem—acid rain—is also a growing concern. A byproduct of coal-burning power plants, factories and other sources, it increases the acidity of soils, lakes and streams. (In urban settings, it can also degrade infrastructure, gradually eroding historic limestone and marble buildings.)

“At present, only streams at the highest elevations are acidic enough to have impacts on riparian ecosystems,” Kidd explains. Thanks to “a natural buffering capacity, the streams have been neutralized to the point where they can sustain a healthy riparian ecosystem by the time they reach the bottom of the mountain.” But as acid rain continues, streams will be affected lower down. “That pH level that’s already dangerously low will move all the way to the bottom of the mountains over the next 26 years or so,” he notes. “Add it all together—exotic species, changes in temperature patterns, ozone—and it all adds up to a huge amount of stress. We’re referring to it as a crisis in slow motion.”

Stormy weather

According to David Easterling, head of the Scientific Services Division at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, this region will see “longer summers, shorter winters, and a lot of growing season.”

That’s the good news. The bad news? When it rains, it’s going to pour—literally; and hurricanes hitting our region will be more intense than ever. “City planners have to be able to plan for that sort of thing,” says Easterling. “They’ll have to expand the storm sewers and re-examine the disaster plan.”

It might seem counterintuitive that global warming would produce heavier rainfall, especially in light of this summer’s drought conditions. But “when you warm the air up, it holds a lot more moisture,” Easterling explains. “Even though you have more annual rainfall, conditions get drier. Heavy rainfall tends to run off more than soak into the ground.”

Hotter summers, vanishing plant species, more severe storms … if you’re looking for a bright spot, experts say 2027 won’t be the year the last square inch of dirt is paved over or the final old-growth tree is felled. But compared with the landscape and climate we enjoy today, it won’t be a pretty picture.


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