Carolina Environmental Diversity Explorations

Elevations and forest types · By Dirk Frankenberg

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Figure 1. The Blue Ridge is home to more than half of North Carolina's plant species, including the rhododendron shown here. (Photograph by the author. More about the photograph)

The relationship between elevation and forest types is one of the most striking features of the ecology of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The major determinent of this relationship is climate: Average temperatures in the Blue Ridge decline about 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit with each 1,000-foot increase in elevation above sea level.

The Blue Ridge extends from an elevation of about 2,000 feet near Asheville to 6,684 feet at the top of Mount Mitchell. The average temperature declines more than 22 degrees in only eighteen miles! This temperature range produces a set of forest types that would stretch from North Carolina to southern Canada if they all occurred at the elevation of Asheville.

The forests of the Blue Ridge Mountains are a real treat to visit because of their diverse plant and animal life. Almost half of all the higher plant species that occur in North Carolina occur in the mountains, and many of those have spectacular blooms. In addition, more than 350 species of moss, 2,000 species of fungi, 67 species of mammals, and 50 species of salamander make their homes in the Blue Ridge.

The rapid change in forests along the Blue Ridge Parkway that connects Asheville and Mount Mitchell has been described by Carleton Burke, a naturalist at the Western North Carolina Nature Center, in a book entitled Driving Tours to North Carolina Natural Areas. This virtual field trip was based on Burke’s descriptions, and follows the changes in forest types up the more than 4,500-foot increase in elevation along the south-facing slope of the Blue Ridge.

Definitions

elevation n.
Height on the earth's surface above sea level.
climate n.
The meteorological conditions, including temperature, precipitation, and wind, that characteristically prevail in a particular region.