Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Firefly Season Past Peak in Parts of GSMNP and Closes Elkmont to Non-Campers Starting Tonight

Fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are a big deal. Strike that. One particular species of the 14 known lightning bugs in the GSMNP is a huge deal. What makes this one firefly (Photinus Carolinus) also called a lightning bug so special is the unique synchronized light show both the male and female firefly provide to around 1,000 visitors a night.

The Synchronized Firefly has been a huge draw for years - so much so that the Great Smoky Mountains national park has created a shuttle system to handle the huge influx of visitors into the Elkmont are of the park close to Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Wears Valley.

Though these fascinating lightning bugs can be found through most of the Great Smoky Mountains national park if you know when to be there, the Elkmont are along the Little River Hiking Trail is the only safe place to accommodate many visitors wandering around in the dark.

The City of Gatlinburg has helped the park by providing eco friendly shuttles from the Sugarlands Visitor Center parking area to Elkmont and back for only $1 per rider. The problem is more visitors arrive to the departure area every day than the park can safely handle.

Each year as more and more people arrived to ride the shuttle to see the fireflies in Elkmont earlier and earlier, the more people missed the opportunity to see the fireflies and their synchronized light show. It also filled the parking in the visitor center lot for much of the day keeping other visitors from having access to the visitor center and the facilities.

The park this year took a bold move to make it fairer for a greater number of visitors and to alleviate congestion by instituting ticket sales in advance through the internet for the firefly shuttle trolleys.

In order to not exceed the holding capacity of Elkmont and the parking area 175 car passes were released for each day the shuttle was to be in operation. There will be already all the campers in the 220 campsites in Elkmont, many of whom reserved their site as much as 6 months in advance.

An additional 25 passes for each date the firefly shuttle trolley was to run will be released on 10 am the day before departure by visiting Cost for the shuttle is $1 per passenger round trip.

While these were all great ways to protect the resources in the park, increase visitor safety and be able to enjoy natures greatest light show right here in the Smokies which could go wrong? How about if the Great Smoky Mountains national park throws a huge party of the fireflies and the guest of honor don't show up!

The fireflies among lots of other plants and animals in the Great Smoky Mountains national park along the lower elevations are all screwed up. Phenologically that is.

Timing is everything in for much of nature in the natural world. When a flower is blooming there better be a way it gets pollinated, when fruit is born, something has to eat it to spread the seeds. Well this year the extremely warm winter and early spring has screwed everything up.

The Photinus Carolinus synchronized firefly starts as a glowworm living underground and emerges once the soil is around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. It likes to keep by slow moving water and uses its bioluminescence (light produced by a living organism) in the form of a greenish glow to attract mates.

Since we have been far too warm in the lower elevations this year, they emerged too soon. As a result, they are passing/past peak right now and by the time the shuttle service was scheduled to begin, the show will be poor and they may be virtually gone before the shuttle service ends.

Because of the tremendous logistic involved in safety handling such a number of people and the staffing along with the trolleys required to shuttle visitors to the firefly show in Elkmont, the Great Smoky Mountains national park cannot move the timing of the shuttles.

To further add to park visitor's frustration, because of safety concerns and staffing shortages, the national park closed Elkmont to all traffic at night other then campers starting tonight.

Other places to see the fireflies in the park right now include deep into Cades Cove around Hyatt Lane - about a 8 mile round trip hike in ideal walking conditions on a paved and gravel road, by the picnic area in Cosby. Other areas in the park to see the fireflies right now are risky to get into and none can handle more than a few dozen visitors a night at most.

As much as we have historical weather data for the park along with great in-depth knowledge of the synchronized fireflies, this year's weather has put a huge damper on nature's best light show in the Great Smoky Mountains national park.

Regardless whether the new reservation system was implemented or not, mother nature is to blame this time and I for one applaud the new system implemented by the park service.

For those around the Smokies in the next few weeks, as the light show moves up in elevation I will see if I can share 2 other places the show is good in the park.

Was this year's unusually warm weather following 2 particularly rough and unusual winters a result of climate change? It certainly looks that way based upon patterns we clearly see in the GSM park, which is not conclusive.

Portions of a degree up or down a few days earlier or later can wreak havoc on sensitive ecosystems and can threaten biodiversity around the world.

I just hope that decades from now we don't say "remember when the synchronized fireflies used to put their show on before Easter?"

Related Smokies Fireflies News Stories

Synchronized Fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains