Morgantown, W.Va. The Appalachian Trail gives hikers a nearly 2,200-mile trek through mountains, meadows and forests from Georgia to Maine. But to scientists and land managers, it's also a living laboratory that could provide warnings of looming environmental problems while there's still time to fix them.
A group of organizations has launched a project to begin long-term monitoring of the trail's environmental health, with plans to tap into an army of volunteer "citizen scientists" and their professional counterparts.
Together, they will collect information about the health of plants, air and water quality, and animal migration patterns to build an early warning system for the 120 million people along the Eastern Seaboard.
"It's somewhat like the canary in the coal mine in the sense of using it as a barometer for environmental and human health conditions," says Gregory Miller, president of the Maryland-based American Hiking Society.
The Appalachian Mountains are ideal for the project because they house one of the richest collections of temperate zone species in the world. They also have a variety of ecosystems - hardwood forests next to softwood forests next to alpine forests.
The idea for the project, the Appalachian Trail Mega-Transect, is still in its infancy but already has support from the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service, Cornell University, the National Geographic Society and the environmentally conscious beauty products company Aveda Corp.
Scientists will periodically issue reports to help Americans understand how even small environmental changes can affect their lives. High ozone levels, for example, can affect human lungs, respiratory tract and eyes, and increase susceptibility to allergens.
An example of the environmental changes along the trail is smog in the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina, said Dave Startzell, executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry.
"People will read that on 25 or 30 days in a given year, it's considered unhealthy to walk on the Appalachian Trail," he said.
Brian Mitchell, a coordinator with the park service's Northeast Temperate Network in Woodstock, Vt., hopes that within the next year, the partners will have at least two flagship programs for volunteers.
Mitchell says they could help measure tree diameters, track the arrival times of migratory birds and date the blooming and leaf loss of trees.