Climate Action and the A.T. Landscape: A Primer

March 19, 2021

The following post is part of our series on climate change and the Appalachian Trail. For other parts in the series, click the links below.

Gradual change is often hard to recognize let alone respond to. This certainly characterizes how much of the world has approached the impact of climate change. Though the growing signs have been documented for decades, most of the world declined to take significant action until, according to NASA, it is likely too late to curb many of climate change’s impacts.

But the situation is not hopeless. Today, climate change is widely recognized as the most urgent environmental threat of our time. In the wake of this recognition, the pace and scale of climate action are starting to accelerate significantly.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) approaches climate action through two distinct but equally important approaches: climate solutions (which helps mitigate both climate change and its impacts) and climate resiliency (which help adapt to the impacts of climate change). The scale of the A.T., the largest contiguous green space on the East Coast, ensures that our mission-critical work of managing and protecting the A.T. and its surrounding landscape advances both approaches in ways that are critical to global climate action.

What We See Now:

We already see climate change impacting the Trail, its surrounding landscape, and the A.T. experience. Traditional winter-season weather is beginning later and ending sooner. Rainfall is increasing in the northern part of the A.T. corridor, while periods of reduced rainfall are becoming more frequent in the southern part. Species ranges are moving an average of eleven miles northward every decade as invasive plants and pests expand into new and vulnerable habitats. The change is gradual but clear.

“Climate change is real, and we see it impacting the A.T. and the surrounding landscape in various concerning ways. To slow the pace of climate change, and its impact to many aspects of the Trail, we must see a reduction in atmospheric greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide (which accounts for two-thirds of global warming, followed by methane). A heavily forested corridor like the one around the A.T. can play an important role in this.” says Marian Orlousky, ATC Director of Science and Stewardship.

Hemlock Woolly Adelgid are invasive insects that attack North American hemlocks by sucking sap from the trees. They are often hard to see but can be identified by white woolly masses that form at the base of the branch needles. Image courtesy of Laurie Potteiger

A.T. Forests and Climate Solutions

A reduction in atmospheric greenhouse gases can be achieved through reduced carbon and methane emissions coupled with increased carbon sequestration (which basically means “uptake”) and long-term storage. Reducing carbon emissions is up to us. It involves actively lessening our dependence on fossil fuels while working to reduce our carbon footprint in daily life.

But what about increased carbon sequestration and storage? That’s where the forests surrounding the A.T. come in.

It has been well-documented that forests and forested wetlands naturally absorb and store atmospheric carbon. Forests offset an estimated 16%-30% of the emissions created by energy production, transportation, and other greenhouse gas sources. They make such an impact that they are referred to as a “natural climate solution” — the Open Space Institute notes that the Appalachian Mountain range contains the world’s largest broadleaf forest and is already responsible for storing the majority of U.S. forest carbon.

These forests are also critically important for providing clean drinking water and clean air and for protecting biodiversity. Protection of large forest blocks in the A.T. corridor — and preventing further degradation or fragmentation — will allow these areas to continue serving as important areas of carbon storage. Additionally, any amount of restoration and stewardship of degraded habitats (poorly managed forests, unhealthy and heavily invaded forests, abandoned lots, fallow farm fields) will increase the overall carbon sequestration potential for the Appalachian ecosystem.

Consider adding a new term to your vocabulary: proforestation, or, allowing forests to reach their ecological potential in storing carbon in trees and soil. This term captures our approach to ensuring the forests around the A.T. act as a critical climate solution. Keeping forests as forests: protecting and improving the green tunnel we see around us as we make our way on the Trail.

Found in the upper elevations of the Appalachians, a Montane Spruce-Fir Forest provides habitat for unique and rare species. Land conserved for the A.T. corridor provides a connected landscape for species to shift their range as the climate changes. Image courtesy of Dan Hale

The A.T. and Climate Adaptability

If managed and protected properly, the forests of the A.T., can serve as powerful climate solutions, we also recognize that the impacts of climate change are real now. The response is ensuring that the A.T. corridor allows for adaptability to these impacts.

A key to remaining resilient in the face of a changing climate is movement. Faced with a changing environment, a species generally has two options for survival: adapt to the changing environment or move to a more suitable environment. The ability to move is an important factor influencing the outcome of both survival strategies, neither of which is ever a guarantee. High genetic variability — genetic differences among individuals of the same species — plays a critical role in species adaptation. The more differences, the more likely a trait will exist among that population that could confer an improved chance of survival. When species populations become too small or disconnected from one another through habitat fragmentation, there are fewer options within that species gene pool upon which natural selection could act — in other words, the species might not survive because it cannot adapt effectively.

Adaptation takes time and happens over multiple generations. The ability to move is not only critical for adaptation but also for physically accessing new and more suitable locations within the span of a single generation. Movement is important for maintaining biodiversity, particularly as the climate warms and previously habitable regions become uninhabitable for certain species.

An unbroken, forested corridor like the A.T. directly impacts species’ ability to move. When habitats or corridors become fragmented, even the species that would have had a chance at relocating may not be able to. With the continued protection of the unbroken, forested corridor, the A.T. will provide direct benefits during the fight to slow climate change.

What is the ATC Doing to Help Facilitate Action?

Stewardship is an active aspect of protecting the A.T. corridor and helping it thrive amidst the changing climate. This means identifying and protecting the most biodiverse and resilient lands along the Trail, maintaining and creating wildlife migratory corridors, managing threats like invasive species, and being proactive about habitat restoration from Georgia to Maine. These are all examples of active resource stewardship, aimed at helping protect and promote native biodiversity.

Any small amount we do to protect the corridors that provide a refuge from climate change is a step in the right direction. By promoting these messages and working to preserve the integrity of the A.T. corridor, the ATC will continue its efforts to increase the Trail’s impact on mitigating climate change. After all, the choices we make over the next decade, and the actions we take, are bound to shape our existence and future on this planet.

Your donation supports our work to fortify the A.T. corridor against the effects of climate change, helping ensure this resource will continue to benefit us all.


Lead image courtesy of Frank O’Hara