Research in the National Parks

Celebrating the National Parks Centennial through Classes and Projects

In 2015, a record number of visitors explored the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, just in time for its centennial celebration. Paul Super, research coordinator/biologist for the park, expects even more people to visit this year. UNC Asheville researchers are ready, from engaging Kids in Parks to understanding how the landscape has changed since they were kids. A panel of researchers shared their updates on Sept. 9, 2016.

What Happens When Half a Million Trees Fall in the Forest?

Christopher Godfrey, associate professor of atmospheric sciences, and his team of student researchers aim to answer the age-old question of what happens when a tree falls in the forest, but they aren’t interested in the sound that it makes (or the lack of a sound). They’re interested in the force that brought the trees down, specifically the force associated with tornadoes. 

“It’s difficult to rate tornadoes in mostly inaccessible areas with only trees instead of damaged buildings, like in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” said Godfrey. Previously, scientists weren’t able to accurately rate tornadoes that tear through forests. April 27, 2011, changed that, as two storms moved over the mountains, leaving paths of destruction and paths of opportunity.

Godfrey took aerial photos of the damage, and his undergraduate researchers methodically plotted each fallen and standing tree in GIS software, accounting for nearly half a million trees, in what he calls “an incredible data set.” The result is a graphical indicator of tornado damage and a rating system that works in the forest. 

What Grows Up When the Trees Are Gone?

Irene Rossell, professor of environmental studies and chair of the department, also is interested in those park locations devoid of trees, specifically Craggy Flats. In the case of her research, the field-like area is called a grassy bald, and has somewhat mysterious origins, possibly created by lightning strikes, severe weather or Native Americans. It remains bald due to natural or man-made factors as well, or other plants encroach, such as the blackberry plants at her research site.

Students research the invasion of native blackberries in Craggy Flats for Professor Irene Rossell's class.In 2000, more than 95 percent of Craggy Flats had been invaded by native blackberries. The solution seemed to be mowing it back. Rossell has been there since the mowing began, or more accurately right before it began. Her first team of students enrolled in the fall offering of Ecology and Field Biology completed their fieldwork in Craggy Flats, taking inventory of the blackberries and the herbaceous mountain angelica.

Sixty students participate in the hands-on research each fall, collecting data in all weather. Over the course of 13 years, more than 400 undergraduates have participated, and with 10 mowings in that time, the blackberry plants have decreased by 61 percent.

How Do You Find a River in the Sky?

Douglas Miller, professor of atmospheric sciences, has been laying the groundwork to collect data that a NASA satellite has missed, specifically in measuring the accumulation of light rainfall in the mountains. The satellite has trouble detecting light rainfall at mountain tops due to signal noise produced by the mountain. Miller’s network of 32 rain gauges easily collect it, though the path for the researchers to collect the data is not so easy. At elevations of 3,000-6,500, maintenance requires a hike, while lugging gallons of water to recalibrate the gauges. It’s worth it for Miller’s students, who are working in collaboration with Ana Barros, the James L. Meriam Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the Edmund T. Pratt, Jr. School of Engineering, and her students at Duke University, to analyze extreme precipitation and the possibility of an atmospheric river in Western North Carolina. 

That atmospheric river, or water vapor in the sky, could contribute to extreme precipitation events, and predicting those helps lead to community impact and saving lives. It all starts with a few rain gauges in the mountains and funding from NASA. 

What’s the Value of a View?

When it comes to funding the parks, Leah Greden Mathews, Interdisciplinary Distinguished Professor of the Mountain South and professor of economics, could be the university’s resident expert, but not in the way you typically expect. Mathews’ research focuses on estimating the value of those things you can't buy on grocery store shelves, like water quality, scenic quality and cultural heritage. In looking at “The Value of the View,” she led a team of students in surveying Blue Ridge Parkway visitors in Western North Carolina and Southwest Virginia about what they might be willing to pay to preserve the scenic quality. 

The answer: $151 per year and $328 per year to improve visibility, a number that has factored in as part of a court case argued by North Carolina’s Attorney General. “We always ask the question of ‘so what, and who cares?’ to apply our research,” said Mathews. 

Those figures also factor into the next steps for the National Park, providing valuable data for resource allocation and ways that the park can enhance the visitor experience, particularly for the next generation.

Trailing Into Other Projects 

Nature’s Playground

Researchers at UNC Asheville’s National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center (NEMAC) know “the mountains are cooler,” as Executive Director Jim Fox explains, but his team of scientists, designers and communicators have the tools to show climate data and climate change visually. Through mapping and storytelling, they can show the impact of the National Parks outside of the parks, particularly how “we are the nature’s playground for the Southeast.” Learn more at

Kids in Parks

Rebecca Reeve, director of evaluation and learning at the NC Center for Health and Wellness at UNC Asheville, has been expanding her work as well, starting with three Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation Kids in Parks trails and supporting expansion to 141 trails across nine states. The aim is to get families out in nature, offering self-guided hikes and adventures to promote health and create the next generation of park stewards. Her work provided the groundwork for national expansion of the Kids in Parks program. Learn more at

For the Birds

New faculty members in environmental studies bring their research to the mountains, with Assistant Professor Andrew Laughlin venturing to the highest elevations of spruce fir forests to study changes in the ecosystem and specific bird populations. Though in the early stages, the research will surely be something to tweet about in the future. Learn more at