Climate change in North Georgia

Georgia’s climate change risks have become national news in recent months, due to the ongoing construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center (Cop City) and the impacts it’s on tree canopy, waterways, and surrounding communities. The site is located in one of the largest forested spaces in Atlanta, and next to a majority Black community, raising many concerns about both the long-term ecological impacts and increased police violence towards residents. 

But what about the region overall? North Georgia encompasses dense urban populations in the Atlanta metro area and Athens, but also vast rural stretches that include wooded areas and farmland. One recent study shows the southern Appalachians may see increases in wildfire acreage in coming years. According to Jesse Abrams, associate professor of natural resource policy and sustainability in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia, “this doesn’t necessarily imply an unmitigated negative; the region is arguably still in a fire deficit, and more fire could have numerous ecological benefits. The issue is how these fire regimes intersect with the continued installation of houses and other infrastructure in north GA.” He notes that development continues at a rapid pace, “without much thought to issues like ingress/egress, evacuation routes, fuel loads,” which sets us up for a potentially dangerous situation.

Other possible concerns include water quality and quantity, destruction of habitat, the spread of invasive species, and rising heat exposure. As the climate shifts, this can have disproportionate impacts on populations most dependent on the land and those without the resources to move or adapt.

So what can north Georgians do? Abrams suggests “across the broader landscape, a combination of restoration and conservation” might help mitigate existing damage and maintain habitats. Community education, through initiatives like the Georgia Climate Project, can also be useful.

Keeping forested land intact, which has a cooling effect, is one big, important step, as is monitoring water quality, particularly near disturbed areas. Abrams notes “maintaining intact forest cover, especially in riparian areas, is an important strategy, though one that can be difficult to reconcile with many WUI [wild-urban interface] landowners’ desire to have direct access to streams and rivers running through their properties.” Incentives and community education may help individual landowners recognize the ways their land use can impact the larger environment.

And finally, listen to the people who have been caring for this land the longest. As Abrams says, “in other parts of the country (especially northern California) there’s been a real turn toward Indigenous-led restoration of fire-adapted landscapes, and this is something we could benefit from in Southern Appalachia. There is already some very interesting work being done by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to reintroduce fire according to longstanding traditions.”