Climate Change “Tells” in the High Country

By Ben Sessoms

Ben Sessoms produced this story for a class at Appalachian State University.

BOONE, N.C. – While human-caused climate change has not had any significant effects on the region surrounding Boone, future projections estimate that the earth warming is inevitable, creating the potential to alter the second largest Christmas tree industry in the country, according to researchers.

A study done by Appalachian State professor Howard Neufeld and other researchers focuses on the Fraser fir, a type of Christmas tree primarily found at the highest peaks in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, specifically in Western North Carolina.

According to the Watauga County Extension Director Jim Hamilton, the Fraser fir is known for its preference over other trees due to its sturdy needles and its durability over the winter season.

“It’s been called the Cadillac of Christmas trees,” Hamilton said, “for good reasons.”

Neufeld and the other researchers concluded in the study on the Fraser fir that while climate change does not put the tree at risk of extinction, it does seem likely that Christmas tree farming practices will change.

Temperature increases would force farmers to grow Christmas trees at higher elevations where the climate will not be as warm and dry. Higher elevations have limited land space therefore potentially limiting Christmas tree production in the future, Neufeld said.

“If we didn’t do anything about Fraser firs, and the climate warms up substantially,” Neufeld said. “They’re already at the top of the mountains. Where are they gonna go?”

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A view of Christmas trees from the top of Mount Mitchell State Park, home of the highest peak in the Appalachian Mountains.

Holly Whitesides of Against the Grain Farm said that climate change also poses a threat in the form of severe weather.

“Climate change isn’t necessarily about it getting colder in the summer or warmer in the winter,” Whitesides said. “For us, it’s about more extreme weather events.”

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Furman Road in Boone, North Carolina, flooded on Oct. 23, 2017.

To combat climate change, Neufeld said that people acting individually would not be sufficient.

“It’s only when you have the collective whole doing something that you can make an effect on a global basis,” Neufeld said.

A part of what Neufeld said he wants to do at his position at Appalachian State is to educate students and members of the general public that are ideologically or religiously motivated not to believe in human-caused climate change.

“Science doesn’t care about your opinions. Science is facts,” Neufeld said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re conservative, or right-wing, or religious or not religious, it is a fact that CO2 is going up.”

Neufeld said that once people can accept this fact and that humans are causing it, then something can be done to stop it.

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