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The Arctic Came South (and never left)

January 7, 2014

By Helen Chappell

Think it’s cold outside now? About 18,000 years ago, this might’ve been a typical winter day in North Carolina!

During the last glacial maximum (what most folks refer to as the last ice age), ice sheets extended from the Arctic to as far south as New York City. Though North Carolina was warm enough to be blanketed with forests, not ice, it wasn’t exactly the “Land of the Longleaf Pine” that we know today. Instead, spruce-fir forest covered the state.

As the cold and glaciers retreated, so did the spruce-fir forest … mostly. You can still find pockets of the old, cold forest atop our highest peaks. Only in pockets, though, because the warmer climate in the valleys means that the spruce-fir ecosystem doesn’t thrive at lower elevations.

3 images of different spruce-fir forests

Going up effectively means going north; for every thousand feet of elevation you gain, the temperature drops as much as if you’d headed 300 miles north. Can you guess which of these forests is in Canada, which is in North Carolina, and which is in our “Mountains to Sea” exhibition? Mouseover for the answers.

These little islands of spruce-fir forest have been isolated from one another for tens of thousands of years now. In that time, each pocket of forest has become its own little world, sometimes hosting unique animal species on one peak that aren’t found even on the next peak over!

You can visit these “islands in the sky” and check out their fantastic biodiversity without having to brave the bitter cold. Come visit the mountain cove we have on the third floor of the Exploration Center (a.k.a. the “old” building), in our “Mountains to Sea” exhibition.

Today’s high temperature atop Mount Mitchell is only 5 degrees Fahrenheit, with a wind chill near 20 below, but the forecast for our exhibition is 70 degrees all day.

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