Experts strategize against climate change, focus on more resilient Asheville

Trent Price

Contributor

tprice2@unca.edu

Farmers, scientists and government employees educate the community about climate vulnerabilities to increase climate resilience.

Climate change impacts many different fields and organizations in Buncombe County. The surrounding areas are working and collaborating to promote climate resiliency and educate citizens about risks they face and how this impacts agriculture and food supply in the region.

City sustainability office works with NEMAC

Amber Weaver is the chief sustainability officer for the city of Asheville. Weaver moved to Asheville in 2015 and once here, she started promoting climate resiliency.

“It really is the goal of our office to inform our community members, and if we’re all working on creating a more resilient Asheville, it’s not just about being safer, but more equitable,” Weaver said.

Weaver leads the city’s sustainability office with the goal of climate resiliency. Before Asheville, she lived in Atlanta, Georgia, and worked at state and local levels of government. Weaver revealed her passion for the issue of sustainability through her words and tone. She cares for the community and its ability to withstand climate related threats.

City Council’s recent climate emergency adoption provided Weaver’s office with new challenges. Important to Weaver are not only the values of sustainability and climate resiliency, but also equity in the face of climate change.

The sustainability office hired a BIPOC diversity consultant to help define what climate equity and climate resiliency means to our BIPOC communities.

“Our office felt it was important to have that defined by Black, Indigenous people of color, Black members of Asheville, as opposed to the sustainability advisory committee, or the office, or those of us who come from privilege. I think once we receive that information back, it will set up the foundation of the work moving forward,” Weaver said.

Climate equity stands as a common goal among experts and policymakers in this field. Evan Couzo, assistant professor in the education department at UNC Asheville, said weather-related climate change impacts do not affect everyone in the same way.

“Of course, climate impacts are going to be felt disproportionately, particularly in a small area like Asheville, in poor and minority neighborhoods,” Couzo said.

The education assistant professor said reasons behind this include economic and social disparities in minority neighborhoods as a result of racist policies.

Part of the responsibility of Weaver and her office is informing community members on how to protect themselves in the face of climate change and making sure everyone is equally protected.

“I think as we continue to face climate threats, it’s going to be more important for us to be nimble, and I think that when we think in that fashion, about equity and making sure we are protecting BIPOC frontline community members, then we’re all going to reap the benefits of a better system,” Weaver said.

The National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center assists Weaver and others in identifying the areas vulnerable to climate change related impacts. In 2016, Weaver’s office collaborated with NEMAC to complete the climate resilience assessment.

“We used the EPA toolkit on climate resilience to determine the city’s climate threats as well as honing in on the city’s assets and how we can make them more resilient in the face of climate change for a more sustainable Asheville,” Weaver said.

Weaver’s goals for the sustainability office strive toward more renewable energy in the city and county as well as affordability in renewable energy options. The sustainability officer stressed changing systems is the way to build resiliency.

“My goal and our goal for the office is to continue to work with the state, as well as the utility, on providing more renewable options for our community members,” Weaver said.

North Carolina Cooperative Extension agents see extended growing season

Meghan Baker visits farms every day around Buncombe County. She sees effects of severe weather first-hand as farmers deal with a changing climate.

Baker works as the small farms extension agent at the North Carolina Cooperative Extension’s Buncombe County center. This means she works in the field with fruit, vegetable and alternative crop growers. Originally from Jackson County, Baker has always been interested in farming. She grows crops on the side for herself during her free time, which she said was part of what drew her to her current job. Beginning her career working with Christmas tree growers, she has worked with many different crop varieties.

In recent years, the growing season in our region has been growing by a few days, Baker said. The first and last frosts are creeping earlier and later in the year. She also said with more warm days, more insects have the opportunity to multiply into higher populations. Baker sees traps in the fields catching certain types of insect pests earlier than usual as well.

“You can’t farm profitably for a long period of time unless you have sustainability in mind. And, in our area, we have a really strong awareness of that; I would say among our farmers and our community as a whole,” Baker said.

The Cooperative Extension promotes sustainability in farming as environmental protection, but also for financial protection. Baker said more sustainable farming practices are less prone to weather-related impacts, which have been more common in the last few years.

Baker said severe rain events have been increasing in intensity and number in the last five years. This leads to more flooding and water moving in the fields, and if water quality is not good, this translates to a contaminated crop.

“So, we are seeing more growing opportunities, although for some crops that can be problematic. If we have someone growing blueberries for instance, those earlier, warmer springs might cause those blooms to open earlier than they typically would. Then if we do get a late frost, that has a potential to wipe out that entire crop for that season,” Baker said.

That’s exactly what happened to Dee Crocker.

Danielle “Dee” Crocker owns a small farm near the border of McDowell and Burke Counties. She and her husband Jason, run Pick Dee’s Berries and have around 3 acres with about 1100 blueberry plants and 800 blackberry plants.

Crocker said their farm experienced early blossoms on their blueberries and they’ve also seen a late blueberry fruit harvest this year. Luckily, the entire crop was not wiped out but the farm did suffer a loss.

“Our blackberries weren’t fooled by warm Feb. and March weather and blossomed normally in April, but were hit by a frost April 27 and then again on May 8, which is really quite late. They were toast after that. We had about 10 percent  of the predicted harvest survive, but luckily they are hardy plants and will try again next year,” Crocker said.

Crocker hopes to get Pick Dee’s Berries into the agritourism market after the pandemic settles down. The whimsical statement piece on her farm is a wooden platform with wonderful views of the farm and surrounding mountains with a white spiral staircase leading up to the platform.

Baker said small farms are a large part of direct local produce supply. In the face of the pandemic when people are looking for more local sources of food, she said farmers are showing their importance now more than ever.

UNC Asheville’s NEMAC pioneers resiliency research

       Karin Rogers works as a research scientist and the current interim director over NEMAC as well.

An Upstate New York native, Rogers started at NEMAC in 2006. She was named interim director about 6 months ago, just before the COVID-19 pandemic. Rogers started her career working in the field of water quality at the University of Georgia where she earned her master’s degree. Her career focuses on connecting scientists with people who want to use their science, like the sustainability office for the climate resilience assessment, which is a lot of NEMAC’s work.

NEMAC uses science to help municipalities and communities plan for climate-related impacts to the environment. One of the most recent efforts is the climate resiliency toolkit.

“This particular project we’ve been working on for at least five years. It is probably our flagship. It’s helping not just the southeast, but anybody nationwide try to understand what resilience is and showing examples and case studies of how other communities are approaching certain topics and certain threats,” Rogers said.

Rogers’ desire to help others is evident through her work at NEMAC, a major part of which involves mapping climate risks in vulnerable areas. The climate resiliency assessment, which was a collaboration between Asheville’s sustainability office and NEMAC, mapped areas in Buncombe County at risk.

The assessment found Biltmore Village vulnerable to flooding and communities in Northern Asheville more vulnerable to wildfires among other things. Rogers also said extreme heat is becoming more and more of a problem in the Southeast. Weaver’s office created an online resource guide for residents in those vulnerable areas based on mapping from NEMAC.

“Just a handful of years ago, there was a rockslide that closed I-40. Nobody could get to Tennessee for a couple months. Things like that really do impact the supply chain. Truckers couldn’t come through I-40, and that’s a big deal when you’re talking about delivering goods like food,” Rogers said.

Weather and climate-related impacts like the rockslide show some of the ways climate change could impact prices of goods and services. Couzo said these price increases will impact neighborhoods and communities with poorer populations. The effort toward climate resilience strives toward preventing that impact on poorer communities.

Rogers stressed one of NEMAC’s major goals involves students. The organization hires student interns every semester and they are looking to expand their student intern program. In the last 15 years, NEMAC has employed over 160 student interns. Lindsey Nystrom is one of those interns. Nystrom, a junior at UNCA, studies environmental equity. She has been with NEMAC since she was a freshman.

“I am a GIS intern at NEMAC. That stands for geographic information systems, and it’s just convoluted language for mapping and spatial analysis. My high school offered some classes through James Madison University, which is where I got into GIS,” Nystrom said.

Rogers said Nystrom came to NEMAC with experience in the field and contributed to several projects. Nystrom said she worked on projects to help coastal areas be more resilient in the face of climate change.

“I really love the work that we do, I think it’s very meaningful. I think we all find it very rewarding. I would say as much as we can further the advancement of resilience, climate resilience, as well as landscape resilience, and still be involved with that, I would love to see a larger workforce from UNCA students,” Rogers said.

Rogers hopes for big things in the future of NEMAC and UNCA’s involvement in climate resiliency research and the expansion of students working in the field.

“Hopefully in the next five to 10 years, UNCA will be a leader in graduates working in climate resilience. That would be awesome,” Rogers said.

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