published Sunday, October 9th, 2011

Tornado damage to Great Smoky Mountains to be studied

MARYVILLE, Tenn. — The National Science Foundation plans a long-term study of how damage from the April 27 tornado will affect the ecology of an isolated part of the Smoky Mountains.

The tornado hit on April 27 as part of a massive storm system that swept through the western tip of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Blount County. It cleared a quarter-mile path through a forest and damaged 4,500 acres.

Although the area has had straight-line wind damage in the past, it was the first known time a full-fledged tornado had hit the Smoky Mountains.

Tom Remaley, an ecologist for the Smokies, told the Knoxville News Sentinel that park officials will fix damage along trails, but otherwise plan to let nature take its course.

“From an ecological perspective, the tornado wasn’t a bad thing,” Remaley said. “There’s a lot of interest among researchers in how this plays out. This was a rare event for the Southern Appalachians.”

Five months after the damage, plants such as pokeweed are beginning to pop up in clearing and trees are re-sprouting.

Some of the worst damage occurred along the Beard Cane Trail, roughly four miles from the park’s western border and in a sparsely used area. Only a few yellow pines that were already dead and had no canopy to catch the wind are left standing.

The trail left by the tornado’s footprint materializes without warning. Hikers go from mature second-growth forest one minute to a clearing where all the trees are toppled in the same direction the next.

National parks are prohibited from conducting timber salvage operations, so nature is left to take its course.

The National Science Foundation study is expected to involve mapping the wind throw of the trees and establishing vegetation monitoring plots.

“When a tree falls in the park, a number of things take advantage of it,” Remaley said. “Populations of beetles go way up, and that attracts birds and reptiles. Over the short term, biodiversity actually increases.”

The tornado decimated a forest consisting mostly of tulip poplars, sweet gum and red maple trees.

“A hundred percent of the living trees in the tornado path were knocked down,” Remaley said. “We’ve had wind damage in the park on a micro scale, but nobody has ever seen anything like this.”

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