Friday, August 22, 2008

changing forest landscape

Since I don't have any classes or office hours on Friday, and I do have to spend most of Saturday and Sunday working on my on-line classes, today was a perfect day to return a new pair of glasses to LensCrafters--within the 30 day trial period--because they just were not going to work out. I'm still in a period of experimentation with my "new eyes" after last spring's cataract surgery, and it is taking a while to know what kind of glasses work best for different activities (such as using the computer).

For me, a visit to LensCrafters means a 2 hour trek south through Virginia on U.S. 23 to Kingsport, Tennessee and the Fort Henry Mall. It's a spectacular drive between densely forested mountains of Wise and Lee Counties in Virginia. You pass mountain ridges named things like Elk Knob and Cliff Mountain that top out at 3,000 feet, while the four lane road with wide grass median runs at about 1,500 feet above sea level.

At this time of year, late August, the forest covering these mountains is normally dark green, varying in intensity and shades, but still thoroughly green. I was therefore shocked to see great swaths of yellow and even dotting of red through out Virginia. Sycamore and tulip poplars seem to the the species affected. The culprit is probably drought. This is the second year for serious drought in much of the southeast, southwestern Virginia included. The U.S. Drought Monitor gives the weekly picture.

Even if the drought is a temporary fixture of the region, with more plentiful rainfall to return in future years, chances are there will be substantial tree loss from just a few years of drought. This doesn't mean that the forest will disappear, but that less drought resistant species will be replaced by those that can handle the drier months.

The Appalachian forests have changed before, due to the diseases that killed the American Elm and the Chestnut trees. But each change in the forest has rippling effects on other plant species, on wild-life, on the forest based industries. It makes me wonder what these forests will look like in twenty years. What species will be dominant?

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