HIGH COUNTRY — Residents of the High Country have experienced the the full range of weather the mountains have to offer in the last month, but the push-and-pull, wild weather may have a pattern as well as an impact on wildfires in the region.
“2021 was a really unusual year weather wise because we did go back and forth between these wet conditions and then very dry conditions with every season,” assistant state climatologist Corey Davis said.
Davis works for the North Carolina Climate Office, a service of NC State University that provides climate related services such as meteorology and climate research to state, local and federal agencies as well as businesses and citizens. Besides editing the Climate Blog and offering interviews and presentations from the office, Davis represents the NC State Climate Office on the North Carolina Drought Management Advisory Council.
According to Davis, this winter was expected to be drier than usual due to La Niña, a weather phenomena that happens every few years which pushes the jet stream farther north causing warmer and drier winters in the southeast region. But even expecting La Niña, this winter was unusually dry.
“It was almost like a La Niña on steroids because we had this extreme warm weather all across the southeast and really across a good chunk of the country,” Davis said.
As much of a nuisance tropical storms can be with their intense winds and flooding, Davis said they are actually an important part of the state’s climate and they provide a large chunk of the rainfall the state receives during the fall. Without those tropical storms this year, by late October conditions started to dry out.
December ranked statewide as the fourth warmest December on record, and additionally this December was the eleventh in a row that was warmer than usual, Davis said. The last December that was colder than normal was in 2010.
Davis said this is becoming a pattern, that late fall and early winter is where climatologists are seeing some of the fastest and most pronounced warming of any time of the year.
The boom-and-bust warm temperatures and rain can cause plants to bloom early, Davis said, and in recent years he said researchers have observed a “false spring,” where plants bloom during a series of warm weeks but then suffer when the last freeze of the year arrives.
The cyclical wet and dry conditions also contribute to wildfires in western North Carolina, according to Lauren Andersen from the App State Department of Geography and Planning.
“All the precipitation causes all this growth, and then in years where we have huge droughts take over North Carolina you have these really serious wildfires because of everything that’s accumulated in the forest floors,” Andersen said. While wet, the forest floors grow lush understories, but when droughts come those plants become the perfect fodder for fires.
In her research, the variability in the weather, Andersen said, is connected to the increasing frequency of wildfires.
Andersen and Margaret Sugg, associate professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at App State, published a study in 2019 about wildfire vulnerability in western North Carolina following the large-scale wildfires in November of 2016.
Andersen said that in the years since publication it’s been interesting to see how the mapping done years ago was able to locate places more vulnerable for wildfires — places with big elevation changes, lots of forest cover and biomass as well as high population density. She said that while these studies can’t predict all wildfires, the area in which the recent Lost Cove wildfire began was one of the places her study indicated was particularly at risk for fires and has shown how her data has held up to real conditions.
Andersen and Sugg also conducted research about how wildfires impact communities. Interviewing key informants in Watauga and Buncombe counties, both of which had large fires in 2016, Andersen and Sugg talked with professionals in roles such as emergency management and fire safety, health systems, local government and planning, nonprofits, private sector, resource agencies, state and federal agencies and schools and universities.
These professionals brought up a variety of subjects in their interviews, but through analyzing the data Andersen and Sugg found that their informants spoke frequently about water management and consumption, smoke exposure and air quality, as well as education, communication and policy.
“There really wasn’t a lot of long term concern about the future and about if we’re going to have more resource issues or wildfires in the future,” Andersen said of her interviews after the 2016 wildfires. According to Andersen, There was more concern about immediate health impacts, such as asthma, and a bit of panic and shock that such large wildfires had happened.
Diving deeper into how communities are impacted by wildfires, Andersen and Sugg have done separate research studying the mental health impacts of natural disasters in the western U.S. during COVID-19 and in the Carolinas after Hurricane Florence in 2016.
“The levels (of mental health crisis) were so high from the pandemic, we didn’t see a signal for the wildfires,” Sugg said of her research using data from the western United States. According to Sugg, during the pandemic she and Andersen observed large increases in suicidal thoughts and depression, however those were largely driven by the pandemic.
The data they used came from the Crisis Text Line, a nonprofit organization which offers free, 24/7 mental health support via text. This provided demographic information for users as well as over 100 million conversations that artificial intelligence labeled with markers indicating subjects mentioned such as suicide, self harm and depression so that researchers like Sugg and Andersen can analyze the data.
Sugg and Andersen also used the Crisis Text Line data to study the impacts of Hurricane Florence, which hit the Carolinas in 2016.
Sugg said that they had robust findings of significant, sustained increases in suicidal thoughts and self harm among adolescents and young adults in the case of Hurricane Florence.
For more local data and to validate the findings of the Crisis Text Line data, Sugg said she, Andersen and their peers also had access to emergency department visit data from 120 visits across the state to study the hurricanes.
Using advanced statistical methods, Sugg said that her and Andersen’s analysis is able to determine, beyond correlation, a causal relationship between the natural disaster and mental health impacts they observed.
Sugg said she has received a National Science Foundation grant, and she and Andersen have received grants from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to do their research, but this kind of research always needs more funding to continue.
Moving forward, Sugg said she and Andersen are working with psychologists who have clinical backgrounds and can help translate their research results into the medical field so that medical professionals can help patients all around the country during natural disasters.
“We’re just at the beginning of it, we haven’t done hardcore health interventions and tested these methods, and that’s really the next step once we get more funding,” Sugg said.
Marisa Mecke is a Report for America corps member covering the environment for Mountain Times Publications. Report for America is a national nonprofit service program which places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under covered issues.