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What We Can Learn From WNC's Current Drought

Lilly Knoepp
This climate station has many of the same tools that Coweeta Hydrologic Lab used in the 1930s. The lab also holds a more advanced climate tower.

Despite a wet weekend, much of Western North Carolina is still in a drought following an abnormally warm and dry September.

Here’s one outpost in the region that shows how this drought paints a larger picture of changes happening in Western North Carolina. 

Scientists at the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory in Macon County have been tracking climate data since the 1930s. 

The lab is an experimental forest that has some of the longest-running data on stream flow, precipitation and temperature. 

“The little kiddie pool here that is our evaporation pan.”

That’s scientist Chris Oishi. He says the pan is one of several instruments scientists check daily to track the climate in the Coweeta Valley.  Some methods haven’t changed much since the work began in the 30s. 

For instance, next to the evaporation pan.“That’s an anemometer it measures wind speeds,” says Oishi. It looks like a weathervane, with three spinning cups. 

Some of Oishi’s research focuses on shifts in climate and other factors that impact tree growth and forest water use. Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research project ended this summer but the long term climate data collection will continue. In recent months, it’s been especially dry: 

“For the period of July to September, we've only had, just under nine inches of rain. There were only three years that had less rain in our 85 year records,” explains Oishi. 

Western North Carolina has some of the highest variability of precipitation in the region. Parts of Transylvania County are considered temperate rain forests while Buncombe is one of the driest areas in the state.  That’s one reason why the drought conditions are so different across the region.

Oishi says the data shows extremes and variability in precipitation amounts are continuing in Western North Carolina. 

“That can be really detrimental to the trees tree growth, and can lead to a lot of more tree mortality,” he says. 

For instance in Macon County, 2018 was the wettest year on record, while 2016 was one of the driest. And that drought in 2016 led to wildfires, burning hundreds of forested acres in the region. This year’s drought increases the risk of wildfires.

You find out about the drought protocol in your county at the NC Drought Advisory. 

Lilly Knoepp serves as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina. She is a native of Franklin, NC who returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.