By the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy Climate Change Committee
While it’s hard to think about climate change when our world has been totally disrupted by coronavirus, the WVHC Climate Change Committee is continuing with our monthly articles in The Highlands Voice. This is April’s ClimateWise, looking at the impacts that climate change may have on the Allegheny Highlands.
When it comes to understanding the impacts of climate change on the environment, perhaps Dr. David Titley put it in the best perspective. Dr. Titley, a former professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University, said that climate change is the opposite of the old BASF slogan. That slogan was: We don’t make things, we make things better. Climate change doesn’t make things, it makes things worse. With that in mind, here are some projected impacts of climate change on the highlands.
Fortunately, the temperature increases since 1901 have been less in West Virginia (1ºF) than the United States as a whole (1.8ºF). The US Forest Service (see https://www.fs.fed.us/nrs/pubs/gtr/gtr_nrs146.pdf) has projected that under their high emissions scenario temperatures in the Central Appalachian area will increase by 7.8 ºF by the end of the century with the number of hot days (above 95 º F) projected to double by 2050. The low emission scenario projects an increase of 1.9º F for Central Appalachia as a whole. Interestingly, the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia and Maryland are projected to cool slightly under the low emission scenario, and not increase as much as the rest of Central Appalachia under the high emission scenario.
The high emission scenario in a US Forest Service report projects a modest increase in total precipitation in the Central Appalachian area. However, the projection shows a change in when precipitation occurs with slight increases in fall, winter and spring, and a significant decrease in rain in the summer months (-4.1 inches, a 48-percent decrease) by the end of the century. The reduction in rain in the summer may lead to greater and more severe droughts. This scenario also projects an increase in intense precipitation with an additional 2 to 4 more days of heavy (greater than 3 inches) precipitation. The low emission scenario projects a greater increase in precipitation (2 inches a year) by the end of the century. Since warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, the West Virginia highlands may experience more intense storms resulting in flooding as occurred in 2016 in Clendenin, White Sulphur Springs and Richwood, and Harman in 2019.
Impact of increasing temperatures on the highlands forest
With the projected increases in temperature, the period between the last spring frost and the first fall frost has increased and is expected to increase further. The longer growing season will allow trees and other vegetation to grow more and as a result sequester more carbon, a positive aspect of climate change. However, increases in temperature will change the nature of the highlands forest. Some tree species such as red spruce and balsam fir are the most vulnerable to increases in temperature, while oak, hickory, and pine have a greater tolerance to heat and drought. We may see a change in the composition of the forest in the Highlands. Additionally, warmer temperatures and longer frost-free periods will be beneficial to pests such as the hemlock wooly adelgid, emerald ash borer, the southern pine beetle, and deer ticks. And warmer temperatures will allow invasive species such as kudzu to extend their range farther north.
Impact of increasing temperatures on cold-water fisheries
According to the Friends of Blackwater’s Allegheny Highlands Climate Change Impact Initiative, stream temperatures in the Allegheny Highlands have steadily increased over the past forty years as a result of global warming and land-use patterns (fewer trout streams shaded by trees). These temperatures pose a severe threat to stream ecology and biodiversity. Today, Eastern Brook Trout are gone from a third of their former homes in Appalachia’s cold-water streams. The Virginia Climate Modeling and Species Vulnerability Assessment projects that under a high-emission greenhouse gas scenario, suitable habitat for brook trout will disappear from the Highlands in this century.
If we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to take meaningful action. And even in the face of coronavirus, we need to begin to take action now.