Science in our National Parks: 5 places where, and why, scientists work

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

It’s ironic that the Great Smoky Mountains are a place of great mystery. With over 8 million visitors annually it’s the most visited national park. It’s free to enter, close to major metropolitan areas such as Knoxville, TN and Asheville, NC, and has several highways that traverse it. Dolly Parton even built a theme park right next door.  Yet most of the park remains undiscovered, and even the most seasoned visitors know that its 700 square miles is a stronghold for diverse and ancient habitats. The park is one of the last remaining memories of what the east coast was like before colonization and industrialization. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a holdout in one of the world’s oldest mountain ranges, even though it too was heavily deforested by the lumber industry and settled by pioneers. The Appalachian mountains were once comparable to the size and grandeur of India’s Himalayan Mountains. Though the ceaseless influence of time and human development has changed the park’s nature, approximately 30,000 to 80,000 living in the Smokies remain undiscovered. With only a tenth of the species having been discovered, this well-known park is still something of a mystery to most people.

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Many scientists who work in the Great Smoky Mountains focus on the All Taxa Biological Inventory, which is designed to record all the species in the park in a short time period. As one of the world’s most biodiverse places, the Smokies necessarily has the most to lose. Cataloging species is an important aspect of the park’s natural resources management directive. Other scientists address the park’s problematic invasive species.  Native flora, such as hemlock trees, are threatened by invasive insects like the wooly adelgid. Fungal diseases such as White Nose Syndrome in bats have resulted in indefinite closure to caves within the park. Environmental factors such as acid rain and ozone pollution also pose major problems to biodiversity by changing the nature of ancient habitats. Ecologists, biologists and many other professions must work around the clock to protect and preserve the park.

As the most visited park in America, the Smokies are also important for contributing to scientific literacy and learning. I remember first-hand visiting the Tremont Institute when I was in middle school to learn about aquatic habitats and how salamanders are affected by acidic rain and human pollution in natural streams. In retrospect, the outreach performed by scientists at the Tremont Institute and the Appalachian Highlands Science and Learning Center contributed to my academic path towards environmental science as a graduate student. As a frequent visitor to the park, and native of Knoxville, TN, I am very grateful for the Smoky Mountains and the scientists who work there. To learn more about the park, visit this link.

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