The impacts of climate change are steadily and exponentially being felt here in Appalachia just as they have across the globe, and environmental activists, scientists and outdoor enthusiasts alike find themselves in a race to counter the climate curve in the region. 

The discussions in some communities, however, have shifted to predicting what long-term effects climate change will have on outdoor recreation that, in many places, has supported a changing economy and how our communities can cope. 

Appalachia’s varied topography provides opportunities for outdoor recreation year-round – more than 3 million people section-hike the Appalachian Trail each year. And according to the Outdoor Industry Association 2023 report, West Virginia’s recreation sector in particular is responsible for $660 million in tax revenue and 91,000 jobs. Tennessee’s numerous recreation options brought in nearly $12 billion in 2022 with over 38 million people visiting the state’s 57 parks. 

Protecting the outdoors is an environmental investment, but one that is likely to also secure Applachia’s economic health. 

Extreme Weather Is Already Impacting Recreation

Last year’s outdoor season provided a powerful and unnerving snapshot of the future, foreshadowing Appalachia’s outdoor challenges for the decades ahead. 

In early July, catastrophic flooding and landslides from extraordinary rainfall created a State of Emergency in our region’s northernmost New York counties, closing parts of the Appalachian Trail. Some thru-hikers were stranded and diverted, encouraged to prioritize safety by bypassing that section of the trail entirely. 

Across southern Appalachia, late August brought searing triple-digit temperatures. This record-breaking heat wave arrived much later than typically seen and health warnings kept would-be recreationists confined to their homes during the normal onset of peak outdoor season. 

Intense smoke from last summer’s Canadian wildfires spread deep into Central Appalachia, covering the region in a thick haze that significantly degraded air quality. These plumes of smoke send greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, smothering the skies with dangerous emissions that negatively affect our community’s health and recreation.

2023 also went down in history as one of Central Appalachia’s most widespread wildfire seasons due to abnormally warm and dry fall weather. In West Virginia, more than 32,000 acres of forest burned, including a major blaze in November at the New River Gorge National Park, permanently altering the landscape of one of America’s most popular rock climbing destinations. 

The Projected Risks for the Region

As we approach mid-century, some of Appalachia’s southern cities are predicted to be among the most drought-burdened in the country, while neighbors in the north will regularly see a greater frequency of unprecedented flooding. The health of our communities could be impacted by rising rates of tick and mosquito-borne diseases and an elongated allergy season. 

These compiling risks over the next few decades will require recreationists to maintain awareness and use extra precautions while navigating the outdoors. And it’s all attributed to rising temperatures.

“Minimum surface air temperatures are projected to continue increasing across the region,” said Dr. Karen King, assistant professor of Geography at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. “A less obvious, but just as impactful consequence of warmer minimum temperatures is the reduction in overwinter mortality of invasive pests, which cause substantial harm to us and our recreational spaces.”

Leisure spaces used for hiking, biking and climbing will also suffer from the onslaught of heavy rainfall. Trails and their associated infrastructure, like bridges and shelters, could be impaired by rockfall and damaged by erosion. This particularly affects those that border some of the region’s most picturesque waterways, like West Virginia’s New River, one of the oldest rivers in the world.  

“In some cases, the most scenic is not always the most sustainable,” said Hawk Metheny, vice president of trail management at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “If you have an area that’s susceptible to erosion, it’s magnified exponentially – instead of the natural rate of erosion that occurs, you can experience multi-years in just days.”

Other forecasted downsides of impending temperature increases include reduced snowfall in the north and irrigation concerns in the south. Lack of winter precipitation will constrain activities like skiing, snowboarding and cold-water fishing, and make local niche resorts economically nonviable. And we can expect difficulties watering manicured green spaces in our public gardens and golf courses. 

Thankfully, Appalachia is Naturally Resilient

While these extreme weather events easily paint a grim picture, compared to much of the nation, Appalachia is relatively well-positioned to adapt to the effects of climate change according to Invest Appalachia’s 2023 climate analysis report. It states, “the geostrategic importance of the region’s natural and ecological assets in the face of the climate crisis present significant and complex opportunities for future generations” 

The region’s ecosystems are hardy. This is particularly true within more mountainous landscapes where moderating temperatures and elevation variations create comfortable microclimates, called “climate strongholds.” 

These strongholds are areas especially resistant to the climate’s changing conditions and Appalachia happens to have an abundance of them. Experts say they will serve as a crucial refuge for a rich variety of plant and animal species seeking respite from the heat and droughts.

“Species that we’re used to seeing in certain areas are either evolving out or being overtaken by invasive species that are now thriving in the changing climate,” Metheny said. 

The Nature Conservancy compares Appalachia to the Amazon rainforest as “one of the most globally important landscapes for tackling climate change and conserving biodiversity.” The region’s forests store approximately 56 percent of the East Coast’s above-ground carbon, providing lasting havens of cooler weather. 

Temperature sanctuaries such as these will become more and more important to those who seek recreation in unspoiled wilderness, especially during summer months.

The Forecast is Not All Bad

In a swiftly changing environment, the total value of outdoor recreation is flourishing. In 2021, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy reported that “existing historical communities on and surrounding the Trail are becoming key partners in the development of a sustainable rural economy surrounding the Trail corridor, based on access to the outdoors.”

And excluding snow activities, outdoor recreation as a whole will see an extended season. Times when outdoor experiences didn’t previously appeal to most people will become year-round occasions for leisure and adventure, providing the opportunity for a boost to both physical and mental health outcomes. 

In Southern Appalachia, it’s foreseeable that by 2050 parks and trails will be accessible without much winter preparation from mid-February through November. The number of days per year with temperatures considered comfortable for outdoor activities will increase throughout Central Appalachia. Despite heavier rains in the north, the total number of overcast days is forecasted to be fewer. 

“With the hiking season prolonged, it will take pressure off the influx of long-distance hikers in the southern section and even out the Appalachian Trail’s use,” Metheny said. “Spreading this out over location and time decreases the ecological footprint and provides hikers who want certain outdoor experiences like solitude more availability.” 

Metheny says more than ever, people seek mental breaks by exploring natural spaces, engaging in physical activity with loved ones, and taking moments for self-reflection and creativity that contrast the often unhealthy conditions of our hectic daily lives.

“There’s the obvious negatives to climate change. But we’re aware of the work and diligently getting ahead of some of these severe impacts. We’re considering both sides of the story; preparation, but at the same time, incorporating resiliency,” Metheny said. 

“We have the advantage now of seeing conditions starting to change and are getting the sense that we’re at the front edge of something significant developing.” 

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This article was originally published by 100 Days in Appalachia, a nonprofit, collaborative newsroom telling the complex stories of the region that deserve to be heard. Sign up for their weekly newsletter here.