Until a few days ago, the last time I wore these hiking boots was on February 22. An icy sleet began to cover the sidewalk as I walked my dog. To be safe, I had strapped on my Yaktrax and stayed on the grass near the mailboxes. Suddenly my energetic four-legged buddy lurched to sniff the grass across the sidewalk.
Restraining my 45-pound canine, I stepped onto the ice and came crashing down on my right wrist. Now, two months post-surgery, I’m wearing those boots again to hike on Skyline Drive in Virginia.
Max near the Pinnacle Overlook on Skyline Drive.
View of the famous Blue Ridge Mountains as seen from Big Meadows on Skyline Drive.
On April 23, one day after Earth Day, we arrived at Big Meadows on Skyline Drive, part of the Shenandoah National Park. Climate change is a research priority for the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service (NPS), which manages all the national parks. Research partners from Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) are studying how the seasonal timing of natural events is shifting due to climate change. The NPS website informs us about ongoing work to monitor and study conditions in the park. These include:
Phenology monitoring, the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life: These shifts, particularly an earlier start to spring, have already been observed in the park.
Greenhouse gas research: The University of Virginia is collecting data in the Pinnacles area of Shenandoah National Park to learn more about greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapor.
Long-term data collection: The Big Meadows area has been contributing important weather information to long-term datasets for a number of years. These datasets allow climate scientists to predict what impacts climate change will have both at Shenandoah National Park and in the region.
We know from the NPS that “scientists at Shenandoah National Park have measured warmer stream temperatures in recent years, which can further stress Shenandoah’s native brook trout. As temperatures and climate conditions change at Shenandoah National Park, plants and animals may no longer be suited to living in the park. The endangered Shenandoah salamander, which is found nowhere else on the planet, is one such animal that may become a climate change casualty."
Solar panels collect energy for electric vehicle recharging stations at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, a USGS facility in Maryland.
A stream supports plants and animals on the Appalachian Trail.
It was too early in the season to see any salamanders, but we did find beautiful streams along the forested Appalachian Trail near Big Meadows. The salamanders lay their eggs in damp logs, moss, or moist crevices in late spring or summer; one would expect a new crop of baby salamanders by fall. Because salamanders are mostly nocturnal creatures, they would be more likely to be out at night. This species serves several important ecological roles, including “predation on insects and other invertebrates, soil aeration and influence on soil dynamics brought about by burrowing, and they are a food source to other forest animals. Their predation on insects also influences ecosystem processes such as decomposition.”
The NPS is working with partners to better understand the Shenandoah salamander, which is facing extinction. "Monitoring will further describe the species' range and characterize its abundance. Work is also being done to further minimize local human impact on the salamander, such as hiking and camping. In addition, major efforts are being made to understand the potential impacts of climate change on this rare species," the agency reports.
Two of the many hikers we met on the Appalachian Trail near Milam Gap south of Big Meadows. One couple reached their 200th mile that evening.
One can think of the Earth as a network of systems, not separate systems. While we want to enjoy hiking in our national parks, it is important to be conscious of the impact we humans have on the environment, tread lightly on it, and give back to restore healthy ecosystems.
How do we do that while addressing climate change? One answer is to look at our energy sources – transitioning from fossil-based to more renewable energy options.It is encouraging to see solar-powered electric charging stations at parks, businesses, and elsewhere because they represent a low carbon future, except for the manufacturing process. That may be changing, too.
President Biden’s plan to reduce greenhouse gassesthat add to a warming climate envisions autoworkers building modern, efficient, electric vehicles and the charging infrastructure to support them. It envisions engineers and construction workers expanding carbon capture and green hydrogen to forge cleaner steel and cement; and farmers using cutting-edge tools to make American soil the next frontier of carbon innovation. The goal is to secure U.S. leadership on clean energy technologies while reducing greenhouse gasses. As the nation and the world transition to lower carbon energy sources, we all have a role in protecting the environment for humans, plant, and animal life, including the little Shenandoah salamander. For some suggestions on what you can do, check out this article in Green America.
Feel free to let us know how you're protecting the planet!