The cloud forest in our backyard

On some mornings, the mountains across our valley radiate in the dawn light, but frequently they are coyly veiled by clouds. These are the highest peaks in the East — ancient mountains, among the oldest on the continent — and a tattered shawl of dark forest drapes over the ridge and its craggy shoulders. This high-elevation dark green forest is one of Western North Carolina’s unique natural features, the Southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest.

This plant community was once ranked as the second-most endangered ecosystems in America and is responsible for the names of iconic mountain ranges: the Blacks and the Balsams. For those who live in or visit the region, it is worth getting to know this bewitching habitat better. This forest’s story is compelling — the more you know, the more endearing these woods are.

If you drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway, hike in Pisgah National Forest or on the Appalachian Trail, visit Mount Mitchell or the high elevations of the Smokies, you will find yourself in this forest, and you should know how singular it is.

Even more important than the quantity of rain is how frequently the mountaintops are blanketed by clouds. When immersed, cloud vapor condenses on the trillions of coniferous needles and drips onto mossy beds below.

This phenomenon, called fog drip, is most famous as the source of water for coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest. Similarly, fog drip is the mechanism that irrigates our high mountain forests — the headwaters of most of our mountain creeks and rivers. The spruce-fir really is a temperate rainforest, or more specifically, a cloud forest.

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