Vulnerability and Resilience in the Southern Appalachian Mountain Region

Research Team:
Kara Dempsey, Geography and Planning
Elizabeth Shay, Geography and Planning
Margaret Sugg, Geography and Planning

Cluster Summary:

Mountain regions are central to our understanding of human and environmental change. A 2016 CONCERT-supported research cluster provides the structure for identifying and coordinating academic resources and expertise related to disaster vulnerability, resilience and long-term recovery in the mountain environment. This cluster will contribute to the knowledge base supporting applied climatology, vulnerability theory, mountain geography, economics, geographic information science, regional planning and other sciences.

The southern Appalachian Mountains (SAM) are a complex region undergoing rapid changes as a result of biophysical (e.g., climate and land cover changes) and socioeconomic factors (e.g., economic growth) that produce an array of interactions that elevate the risk and vulnerability of the population. Specifically, the distinctive mountain landscape, with limited road networks and steep terrain, present particular transportation and economic challenges that are exacerbated by the risk of extreme events (e.g., storms, droughts), and uncertainty about frequency, duration and severity of these events under a new climate regime.

This research cluster recognizes the valuable work conducted in coastal regions relating to regional risk and resilience, and seeks to play a similar role in studying and serving the needs of mountain communities with data-based knowledge and actionable analysis that supports future-oriented and locally relevant policy as well as public demand for information. While North Carolina mountain communities may be viewed as isolated from the concerns and dramatic stories of piedmont and coastal population centers and associated economic activities, in fact they are important resources for the entire state—collecting and storing water for large metro regions, supporting small manufacturing centers, and driving a powerful economic sector by with distinctive destinations for recreation and tourism, as well as critical concentrations of natural resources, biodiversity, and beauty.

One of the cluster’s primary goals is to use existing data sources and tools to investigate the factors that have shaped current mountain vulnerability, and the factors that may contribute to increased vulnerability or—alternatively—more resilient communities and regions in a changing climate. We are interested in both natural and human (social and economic) systems, and how they interact—in ways specific to the Appalachians or more broadly generalizable beyond our region. Because we are social scientists working with natural, social and economic systems, our process and products are likely to be of interest to working planners and decision-makers, as well as to the interested general public. For that reason, much of our focus is on community- engaged research that allows two-way transfer of knowledge and values between researchers and community partners. To this end, we have identified and communicated with professional partners for an initial small set of projects (e.g., municipal and county planners and economic development officials as well as social service providers); discussed joint work with non-profits (e.g., the New River Conservancy); and renewed or established ties with research entities such as the Southeast Regional Climate center, the North Carolina Department of Public Health, and UNC-Chapel Hill’s Preparedness and Emergency Response Research Center.

The main objective of the mountain vulnerability and resilience cluster is to examine the complex patterns of socioeconomic and biophysical factors that influence disaster vulnerability in SAM. This task will be accomplished through an interdisciplinary, mixed-methods approach that integrates GIS, qualitative methods, and spatial statistics to understand and quantify disaster vulnerability. Ultimately, these results will lead to the development of targeted outreach programs to promote mountain resilience. We have largely fulfilled our first-year objectives to develop a coordinated research and teaching agenda that trains students and provides timely, actionable analysis for agencies, organizations and communities, by:

  • Seeking out additional academic colleagues and resources at ASU that could contribute to this research cluster and finding community organizations to help assess community needs and find potential collaborative projects.
  • Identifying curricular and research opportunities (i.e. internships, collaborations, etc.) for students seeking knowledge and expertise in hazard mitigation and disaster recovery
QEP Global Learning


Dr. Nicole Bennett
Interim Director, Research Institute for Environment, Energy and Economics
401 Academy Street
234 IG Greer Hall
Appalachian State University
ASU Box 32131
Boone, NC 28608

ph: (828) 262-2764
fax: (828) 262-6553