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The Resurgence of Appalachia: A Future Refuge for Animals and People Facing Catastrophe

Updated: Jul 4, 2023

Appalachia. A cultural region generally characterized by the Appalachian Mountains stretching from northeast U.S., including parts of New York state, and South to Georgia. Geographically, the mountain range stretches into Canada, and South to Alabama. The region is home to unique dialects and cultures. Native Americans inhabited the region for thousands of years. The banjo, invented by enslaved Africans, became a signature sound for the region’s melting pot of unique music and culture. In fact, the Appalachians stretch across an ocean and into Ireland and other parts of Europe, as these land masses were separated. In fact, early Scotch-Irish settlers found similar terrain upon arrival and were able to adapt perhaps in part to this familiarity in topography.

Today, much of Appalachia, particularly in parts of Kentucky, West Virginia, Western Pennsylvania, Western Maryland, and Western Georgia, are economically depressed regions. Major industries such as coal and textiles have long seen their heydays. West Virginia, today known as a more “pristine” state ecologically, was once almost completely flattened by logging outside of the hardest to reach places. Much of the forest has since grown back, but ecological disturbance has reigned over the past century. Less known, but nonetheless boasting ecological riches of its own, the state of Virginia may be more West Virginia than West Virginia. By that I mean, Virginia has more than 16 million forested acres and a higher black bear population, compared to 12 million acres (about twice the area of New Jersey) in West Virginia. North Carolina also boasts impressive forest cover.

The Appalachian Mountain Range
Figure 1. The Appalachian Mountain Range. Credit: The Nature Conservancy

But did you know, in this era of ecological calamity, Appalachia is compared to the likes of the Amazon in terms of its importance to preserving biodiversity, and may become a climate refuge for both people and animals? The system has stored over half of the Eastern United States’ above ground carbon, restraining warming. The increased elevation provides a buffer for higher temperatures. The forest cover also helps the region retain microclimates filled with moisture and an abundance of fresh water. The mountains resist most major impacts from hurricanes, although riparian regions and valleys can face severe flooding due to large storms.

Mammal, amphibian, and bird movement through the Appalachian Mountains.
Figure 2. Mammal, amphibian, and bird movement through the Appalachian Mountains. Credit: The Nature Conservancy

The nature conservancy published a figure on how animals migrate to and through the mountains, taking advantage of its resources and habitat. These migrations may increase in future as surrounding ecosystems are degraded by the storms, sea level rise and droughts to come.

In no way is this region impervious to degradation. In fact, it has lost keystone species, including the American Chestnut, and Hemlock trees, and many other species face pressure due to invasives and a changing environment. Only about a quarter of its ecosystems are protected and remain threatened. However, it has seen a resurgence of forest cover as of late. As such, it offers a host of ecosystems services for man and beast alike, something other regions sorely lack or will soon be devoid of. If we were to lose Appalachia, it would most certainly spell doom for the country’s remaining biodiversity, and severely hamper our ability to prevent further warming, and the associated catastrophes. Losing Appalachia is not an option. Organizations such as the Nature Conservancy are working to retain existing ecosystems, purchase land, and connect landscapes.

The map developed by the Nature Conservancy tells a compelling story of where a great number of mammals, birds and amphibians are on the move to: The Appalachian Mountains. In North America, the mountains are the superhighway of life. As sea level rise squeezes the coasts, where will people and animals retreat? Will Appalachia boom once again? Should you purchase land in preparation for what is to come? Well, perhaps....

A major question here is, will more be done to preserve and protect fragile ecosystems and natural resources this time around?

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