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Combatting Unprecedented Floods in Southwest North Carolina

The mountain region of North Carolina is one of the most environmentally unique areas in the country, with cities and towns falling within and near the Great Smoky Mountains. Each year, nearly 9 million tourists from all over the world visit the Smokies to take in the breathtaking scenery that lies at every turn. From stunning waterfalls to diverse wildlife, GSM provides tourists and natives alike a getaway from the hustle and bustle of large nearby towns.

With an ecosystem this special, this area must be watched closely as climate change continues to affect the environment. Luckily, the mountain region of southwest North Carolina is overseen by a highly qualified, dedicated team of individuals from the Asheville Regional Office of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). According to their website, the mission of the DEQ is to protect the resources and environment of North Carolina by, “administering regulatory programs and offering technical assistance to businesses, farmers, local governments, and the public.” The Asheville regional office oversees 19 counties in southwest North Carolina, many of which are considered as part of the mountain region of North Carolina.

To gain more insight on some of the most recent effects climate change has had on the region, I spoke with Larry Ammons, an environmental specialist for the Energy, Mineral, and Land Resources division of the Asheville DEQ. Larry explained that the areas in which he had seen the most devastating impacts of climate change were in the Nantahala Gorge, right beside the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and in Polk County, about an hour southwest of Asheville. Flooding in these areas caused massive damage to the land and its vegetation and, in the case of Polk County, even led to a fatality.

The Nantahala River Gorge is a major tourist destination for all those looking to escape into nature. Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the area and rafting alone brings in 200,000 people annually. The gorge is 8 miles long and is located at the heart of Bryson City and is so deep and hidden that it only sees sunlight for a short amount of time each day. Unfortunately, this beautiful, hidden treasure has faced devastating floods in recent years, leading to extreme runoff. According to Larry, some areas in the gorge are now completely devoid of vegetation to the point where only bedrock can be seen. Similarly, Polk County, which is only 2 hours away from the Nantahala Gorge, has frequently faced torrential rains, leading to the death of a Polk County man in 2018 after his entire home was removed from its foundation. Larry says that before the last few years of intense rain and floods, plans were only in place to prepare for these types of floods and downpours every 50 years. Now, he says that events like these that should be happening every 50 years are happening two or three times every couple of weeks.

After talking with specialists from North Carolina State University, Larry believes that the root of the flooding problem is increased evaporation due to the Earth’s current warming period. While this warming period will require large-scale, international changes to be made regarding climate, Larry says that more immediate action is being taken to prevent devastation like this from happening in the area. The state of North Carolina is spending increased amounts of money on erosion control, increasing the staff of organizations such as the DEQ and spending more time on disaster-preparation procedures such as slide-mapping. While Larry says there is always room for improvement, especially in the need to educate developers in the area, he also says that this increase in resources has been monumental in keeping the area safe. With increases in funding, resources, and education, Larry is hopeful that positive changes that will help combat climate change will continue to be made in the area.


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