The Great Smoky Mountains’ iconic clouds are helping to protect the region from climate change – for now

Long before the Great Smokies became a national park, its mountains peeked out among clouds of haze. The Cherokee called the mountains “Shaconage”: the place of the blue smoke.

The iconic clouds in the park – on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee – are as important to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as glaciers are to Glacier National Park and Joshua trees are to Joshua Tree National Park. The blanket of haze is part of the draw for the Smokies’ 12.5 million visitors in 2019, almost twice the number at the Grand Canyon.

The haze is more than a sight to see: High rainfall totals and summertime humidity foster plant growth, making the region a biodiversity hotspot. The Smokies are home to 30 species of salamanders, earning the park the title of salamander capital of the world.

Moisture from the haze may also be protecting the Smokies ecosystem from the changing climate. The mountains are generally most moist at the top because the highest elevations are immersed in low-hanging clouds – a cloud forest. But as the climate continues to warm, the nature of the Smokies’ cloud cover may change.

Ana Barros, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke University, said rising temperatures could, in theory, decrease cloud cover, threatening key habitats for creatures such as salamanders. And Jason Fridley, a biologist at Syracuse University, warned that if the region sees a decline in precipitation on mountain peaks, “that might be catastrophic.” So scientists are working to understand the park’s clouds before they change forever.

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