Thursday, April 28, 2011

How bad weather might affect the future of the AT

That was some storm, wasn't it?  Hundreds dead, brick buildings demolished down to the ground, trees snapped like so many toothpicks?  Some of the photos I've seen looked remarkably like the damage done by tsunamis.  I guess catastrophic is catastrophic no matter where you are. 

I have friends and loved ones way too close to the path of devastation.  I might get to see some of it, too.  In a week I'm driving down to southern Virginia to hike for a week, and I'll be going right by some of the damaged areas.  Of course with the way tornados skip around I could walk half a mile from the track and not know it.

It got me to thinking.  I've been assuming that the violent weather is part of the global warming trend.  The models predict more violent and extreme weather.  If that's the case, life is about to get very interesting (and scary) in a lot of places.  We should find out in a year or two if this year is a fluke or part of a trend.  If it's a trend, some of things I love to do best, which involve being outdoors, are not going to be so easy or fun to pursue. 

One thing I'm talking about, of course, is hiking the Appalachian Trail.  (Though the horseback riding will also be problematic.  I can probably get around that by moving the horse to somewhere with an indoor arena, if tornadoes don't take out all the arenas..) If we get more wet and wild weather, there are several consequences that will make thruhikes much more difficult.

1) 2000 miles of slippery rocks, roots, and mud.  Slips and falls, already a problem in intermittent wet weather, will become even more of a problem in constant wet weather.  I shudder to think about trying to hike some sections in the rain.
2) With more rain comes more vegetation.  It will be hard for the volunteer maintainers to keep the footpath open, even with hundreds or thousands of feet helping kill off anything growing in the middle of the path.
3) Rain is hard on hikers in so many ways.  Your feet shred, you get hypothermia more easily, everything gets heavier as it gets damper, paper and electronics are damaged, food doesn't keep as well, and spirits wither.  Plus, no views.
4) More uprooted trees means more obstructions to the path.  There are so few maintenance volunteers compared to the mileage that has to be maintained that it can take a long time to get big trees off the path in a regular year where there aren't many blowdowns.  It seems obvious that more blowdowns caused by worse weather means it will take even longer.  Regularly bad weather means trees and branches falling all the time, not just during winter.  Shelters will likely take on more damage too.  Most of them are near trees.
5) Wet ickiness aside, the chances of being killed by violent weather (tornadoes and lightning mostly, but also drowning at fords) will go up.

If these things should come to pass, it will take a different, more determined breed of hiker to thruhike the Appalachian Trail.  The safe hiking season might become shorter or even nonexistent in places with mud problems.  They already ask you not to hike in parts of New England during mud season.  If mud season is all year round, then what?

While I hope this year is an aberration (there have been rainy years before, and there will be again), it fits too well with the predictions for me to be comfortable thinking that.  Every time I consider the future and try to project what things might look like in 20 to 50 years, I scare myself. 

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