The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
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Planet Earth, the only speck in the Universe confirmed by humans to have evolved higher forms of life. Watch NASA's phenomenal movie summarizing Life on Earth.

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327549472 642836650863409 3091744227317001155 nHigh school students from across East Tennessee got to check out the latest career offerings in fields like robotics and virtual reality at the Jan. 21 Big Orange STEM event.  JJ Stambaugh/Hellbender Press

The TN Lunabotics, science and sustainability get together at BOSS event

KNOXVILLE What do environmental, social and economic sustainability have in common?

There are numerous ways to answer that question, but for those who pay close attention to education or economics it’s an accepted fact that the future belongs to societies that invest heavily in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). 

That’s why educators at all levels are pushing students towards those subjects at every opportunity, as was evidenced Jan. 21 at Big Orange STEM Saturday (BOSS) at the University of Tennessee.

About 150 high school students picked from communities across East Tennessee spent much of their Saturday at John C. Hodges Library, getting a first-hand taste of what awaits them should they choose to pursue careers in STEM through the UT system.

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Amber ParkerIjams Nature Center Executive Director Amber Parker poses with opossum Opal. She was an Ijams animal ambassador for more than three years. “She came to us after her mother was hit by a car and Opal would fit in the palm of your hand. Sadly, Opal passed away earlier this year. Opossums live short lives, usually about three years, so Opal had a nice long one by opossum standards. She was beloved by all and we miss her.” Courtesy Ijams Nature Center

Each year more than 600,000 people visit Ijams Nature Center

This is the second installment of an occasional series, Hellbent, profiling citizens who work to preserve and improve the Southern Appalachian environment.

KNOXVILLE — On any given day, the parking lot at Ijams Nature Center in South Knoxville is packed with cars, trucks, and buses as folks of all ages flock to hike, climb, swim and paddle its 300-plus acres of protected wildlands.

Making sure the center’s 620,000 or so annual visitors have a positive experience interacting with Mother Nature requires dozens of full-time employees plus a generous contingent of volunteers. Ensuring the complex operation stays on course and within its $1.8 million operating budget is a tough job, but Ijams Executive Director Amber Parker has been doing it for six years now and has no desire to be doing anything else.

When Amber talks about Ijams she fairly bursts with giddy, infectious energy. This is a woman who has clearly found her place in the world, and even a brief walk along any of the center’s 21 trails makes one wonder if the land itself hasn’t responded in like fashion to her devotion.

The crucial Amazon rainforest is nearing a point of no return

NYT: Decades of extraction have left the South American rainforest at a “tipping point.”

The Amazon has long served as a vast carbon sink, even as vegetation pumped oxygen into the atmosphere to the point it was called the “lungs of the Earth.”

But vast deforestation, despite calls to save the Amazon that originated decades ago, portends profound changes in the ecology of the huge, increasingly fragmented forest that lies mainly within Brazil.

“Just in the past half-century, 17 percent of the Amazon — an area larger than Texas — has been converted to croplands or cattle pasture. Less forest means less recycled rain, less vapor to cool the air, less of a canopy to shield against sunlight,” according to a report from Alex Cuadros.

“In one study, a team led by the researcher Paulo Brando intentionally set a series of fires in swaths of forest abutted by an inactive soy plantation. After a second burn, coincidentally during a drought year, one plot lost nearly a third of its canopy cover, and African grasses — imported species commonly used in cattle pasture — moved in.”

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Foothills parkway

Feds clear 14-mile mountain bike trail network off Foothills Parkway, but no funding is secured 

GATLINBURG — Those who logged protests against a National Park Service plan to carve a 14-mile mountain bike trail network through the forest off Foothills Parkway said they still opposed the plan despite federal conclusions it would not adversely impact the natural environment of the area. 

“I’m very disappointed,” said Donna Edwards, an outspoken conservationist who lives in Walland and participated in the public scoping process. “What are (the) reasons for choosing the alternative with the largest footprint and greatest environmental impact?

“I fail to understand why mountain bikers’ needs are considered to be more important than those of birders and hikers, considering the extensive mountain bike trail networks in other areas of East Tennessee.”

She said arguments against approving the Wears Valley mountain bike trails were wise and well documented.

Here is the original Hellbender Press story:

A proposed off-road bike trail in the Wears Valley section of the Foothills Parkway that would be operated by the National Park Service has overcome a procedural hurdle but appears to be no closer to actually being built due to a lack of funding. 

An environmental assessment to determine the project’s potential impact on wildlife and the environment led to an official “Finding of No Significant Impact” (FONSI), park officials said in a press release issued Thursday. 

“We understand the public’s desire to have a purpose-built bike trail, and this marks a step for potential future development of a trail in Wears Valley,” said Cassius Cash, superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “Having the signed FONSI allows us the opportunity to explore potential funding paths for both the construction and the annual operational costs.”

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IMG 2686The sun breaks through the clouds in a South Knox County neighborhood on Tuesday morning following days-long subfreezing temperatures and snowfall Monday night. Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press

Southern cities emerge from frigid airmass after Christmas weekend of brutal cold and snow

KNOXVILLE — Temperatures rose above freezing on Tuesday for the first time since Dec. 23 following a weekend bout with historic cold, high winds, burst water and sewage lines and power outages. The chaos was punctuated with unexpectedly potent snowfall Dec. 26 on frigid roadways that snarled traffic in the city and metro area.

The snow came in the wake of a brutal cold front that first moved into the region in the early hours Friday morning. 

Snow didn’t start falling until Monday afternoon, and by sunrise Tuesday between .5 and 2 inches of the white stuff had blanketed the area, falling upon already frigid roadways.

Public safety officials across the region urged motorists to stay home, and numerous government offices either closed or got off to a late start Tuesday due to icy roads.

Both the Knoxville Police Department and Knox County Sheriff’s Office activated their Severe Weather plans, which meant that officers would only respond to emergencies and wrecks with injuries.

Crews from the city used brine and rock salt to treat streets designated as Level I (main thoroughfares like Kingston Pike and Broadway) and Level II (connector roads like Sutherland Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard).

In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where more than 4 inches of snow fell, officials closed several roads, including the Gatlinburg Bypass, Foothills Parkway West, Laurel Creek Road at the Townsend Wye, and Little River Road from the Sugarlands Visitors Center to the Townsend Wye.

Among the lower elevations in the East Tennessee Valley, Blount County had the most snow with 2 inches on the ground; most of Knox County registered 1.5 inches, according to meteorologist Allan Diegan of the National Weather Service office in Morristown.

While the snow brought its own share of problems and excitement, many people were still recovering from a bitter cold front that swept through the region over the Christmas weekend.

While some native East Tennesseans can remember even colder storms, the type of single-digit temperatures seen from Dec. 23 to 25 came as a surprise to many residents, according to Diegan.

“I wouldn’t say this was rare by any means, but it normally doesn’t happen in December,” Diegan said. “Our coldest days are usually in January and February. This just hasn’t happened in several years, so for people who are just now moving here it might be a little different than what they expected.”

At Knoxville’s McGhee-Tyson airport, the mercury fell as low as 4 degrees early Friday morning, which was the lowest reading on a Dec. 23 since 1988, he said.

But that was by no means the coldest temperature ever recorded in the Knox County area, stressed Diegan — that record was set on January 21, 1985, when the mercury dropped to a bone-chilling 24 degrees below zero.

“I don’t think we saw any daily low records broken this weekend, which is kind of hard to believe,” he said. “This was, at least, the coldest it’s gotten since 2015.”

On February 20, 2015, the low in Knoxville was 3 degrees, records show.

One record that was set in Knoxville over the weekend was for the lowest recorded high temperature for December 23, said Diegan. The high on Friday never climbed above 22, which broke the record of 24 set in 1989.

The blast of cold Arctic air that wreaked havoc over much of the nation last week was so intense it managed to bring single-digit lows even though there wasn’t any snow on the ground until the cold front had already blown through.

“Typically, it takes us having snow on the ground that’s followed by a clear night for the temperatures to drop so low,” he explained. “Cloud cover acts like a blanket and solar radiation is trapped. When it clears, the solar radiation escapes and the temperatures tend to plummet.”

So what was the coldest spot in East Tennessee over the past few days and who got the most snowfall?

Unsurprisingly, Diegan said the answer to both questions was Mt. LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Weather equipment installed on the 6,593-foot-tall mountain went as low as 22 degrees below zero on Christmas Eve and, after Monday’s snow storm, approximately 4.5 inches of precipitation was on the ground. 

Previous updates and the original article are below:

UPDATED Dec. 23: Rolling blackouts, icy spots and subzero wind chills are only some of the challenges facing hundreds of thousands of people across East Tennessee and the Southern Appalachians as a Siberian cold front barrels through the region.

In Knox County, up to 26,000 KUB customers had lost power at one time due to a combination of wind damage and a massive surge in demand for electricity. High temperatures in the Knoxville area hovered near 10 degrees throughout Dec. 23.

If your power went out for up to an hour today, in a home or commercial establishment  it was likely due to rolling blackouts imposed on local utilities by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

“TVA is requiring KUB to reduce power load due to extreme demand on the electric system,” Knoxville Utility Board said in a press release.

“KUB customers are likely to experience temporary outages until TVA provides more information,” according to a statement released in the early afternoon of Dec. 23 by officials at the utility. “KUB is striving to keep rolling outages to 15 minutes and is rotating outages across the service area until TVA lifts the requirement.”

The planned outages were stopped around 1:30 p.m. but around 7,200 customers remained without power due to the high winds at that time, KUB’s website said. 

The cold front — which has wreacked havoc and shattered records across much of the continental United States — roared into the Tennessee Valley in the early morning hours Friday, driving temperatures down into the single digits as winds gusted up to 40 mph.

The lowest recorded temperature in Knox County was 3 degrees in Karns; the low in downtown Knoxville stood at 7 degrees, said meteorologist Allan Diegan. 

The real danger came from the wind chill, which was estimated at 5-10 degrees below zero in the early morning hours, he said. The good news was the roads were mostly clear, with few areas in the Tennessee Valley seeing more than a dusting of snow.

The mercury isn’t expected to climb above freezing until Monday, although the winds should begin to diminish on Saturday.

The rolling blackouts triggered confusion and no small amount of swearing in Fountain City during the noontime “lunch rush.” Power went out along Broadway just before 12 p.m., forcing surprised store clerks and restaurant managers to ask their customers to leave until the situation could sort itself out. 

“I can’t believe I drove down here for this,” said 44-year-old Debra Wells of Halls as she walked back to her car in the Kroger parking lot. “I was going to get lunch at the deli but now it looks like I can’t even go to Chik-Fil-A (across the street).”

One manager at Kroger shook his head apologetically when asked when the store would reopen. “No idea,” he said as he locked the front doors. 

The grocery store reopened within the hour, however — just as power was cut to thousands of customers in the residential areas of the Fountain City and Inskip neighborhoods for about 20 minutes.

One of the biggest concerns this weekend has been the safety of the hundreds of men, women and children who live on Knoxville’s streets, according to officials from Knox Area Rescue Ministries (KARM).

A white flag has been flying outside KARM’s emergency shelter for the homeless on North Broadway, signaling that normal rules restricting who can stay there have been temporarily waived.

“People have been streaming in all day long,” said KARM spokesperson Karen Bowdle. “There are probably close to 450 people in the building. There so many people that they’ve separated the men into the chapel and the women into the dining room.”

Karen said that KARM crews had even been taking meals and coffee to the City’s warming station across the street. 

“We’re very grateful, and we’re all trying to work as a team,” she said. “There are a lot of people who will die across our country this weekend.”

The original Hellbender Press article continues below:

A historically brutal cold front expected to move into East Tennessee late Thursday has people across Knox County and beyond bracing for a potentially deadly drop in temperatures.

The approaching storm is expected to shatter low-temperature records as the temperature drops as low as 7 degrees Dec. 24, the coldest temperature ever reported in Knoxville on Christmas Eve, according to officials from the National Weather Service station in Morristown.

“The biggest concern is the wind chill,” said NWS meteorologist Kyle Snowdin, who said that daytime highs on Friday are expected to hover in the mid-teens. “There will be wind gusts of 30 to 40 mph, which means we could see temperatures of negative single digits or even negative double digits.”

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Knoxville Urban Wilderness — Baker Creek Preserve mapTrails at Baker Creek Preserve.  Visit Knoxville

City cultivation of urban nature amenities proceeds apace

KNOXVILLE — The latest phase in a multimillion dollar plan to turn the southern end of the James White Parkway into an integral part of the city’s Urban Wilderness officially kicked off Monday afternoon (Dec. 19). 

Numerous officials, including Mayor Indya Kincannon, showed up for the groundbreaking of the Baker Creek Pavilion, a key component of the ambitious project.

The city is pouring $2.7 million into the Baker Creek area of the Urban Wilderness Gateway Park, which will offer public restrooms, a picnic area and plenty of parking.

Updated: Smokies crews recover drowned Knoxville kayaker

TOWNSEND — Smokies recovery teams on Monday found the body of Carl Keaney, 61, of Knoxville, in the Little River.

Keaney was last seen kayaking the Sinks during high flow when he vanished under water, prompting calls to Great Smoky Mountains National Park rangers who, along with other local crews, proceeded to search for his body for three days.

Here’s the previous Hellbender Press report:

Teams are searching for a missing kayaker in what Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials are now calling a “recovery operation” after a 61-year-old man disappeared underwater while boating above the Sinks on Little River. High water levels from recent heavy rains are making search and recovery difficult.

“Around 3:40 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 16 Great Smoky Mountains National Park dispatch received a call that a 61-year-old man had disappeared underwater while kayaking above The Sinks and did not resurface,” according to a news release from the park. 

“Park rangers, along with emergency personnel from Townsend Fire Department and Blount Special Operations Response Team are on scene searching for the kayaker. High water level from recent rain is complicating recovery efforts. Little River Road from Metcalf Bottoms to the Townsend Wye is closed to accommodate emergency traffic.”

No more information is immediately available. This story will be updated.

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Canopy Nexus Hotel after floodingFlooding is seen outside a popular hotel in Pakistan following historic and devastating flooding linked largely to the melting of highland glaciers.  Wikipedia Commons

Global population growth promises a drastic spike in public health emergencies

This story was originally published by The Conversation. Maureen Lichtveld is dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh. 

There are questions that worry me profoundly as an environmental health and population scientist.

Will we have enough food for a growing global population? How will we take care of more people in the next pandemic? What will heat do to millions with hypertension? Will countries wage water wars because of increasing droughts?

These risks all have three things in common: health, climate change and a growing population that the United Nations determined passed 8 billion people in November 2022, which is double the population of just 48 years ago.

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image0This is a basic breakdown on the social benefits associated with robust tree canopy in cities, including the city center of Knoxville, shown here.  Knoxville City Government

City kicks off ambitious project to expand the tree canopy that benefits us all

KNOXVILLE — The people in this city sure seem to love their trees.

There is at least one tree for every two people who live within the city limits, but officials say they want to add even more over the next 20 years. 

How many should be planted is currently up in the air, as is the right mix of species and where they should go.

Those are just some of the questions that will be answered in coming months as the Knoxville Urban Forest Master Plan is developed by officials from the city and the non-profit group Trees Knoxville in conjunction with several other agencies and interested citizens.

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IMG 2632This mighty oak is but one of many growing for decades in South Knoxville.  Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press

Contribute to the master plan to grow tree canopy in Knoxville

KNOXVILLE — No matter where you are in the city, you’re not far from a patch or two of trees.

These copses range from small groupings of oaks or dogwoods that are commonly used to mark property boundaries to lush belts of temperate mixed-hardwood forest that sprawl across hundreds of acres. 

While Knoxville may be blessed with an abundance of these urban forests, many local residents and leaders believe it’s nowhere near enough.

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