The NC Science Festival started in 2010 as the nation’s first statewide science celebration with more than a million people discovering science at a school, museum or park during three weeks in April. In 2016, parks become even bigger partners with the theme, “Science in the Great Outdoors.”
Kelvin, the NC Science Festival robot mascot, is high on science and parks. He’s just back from Mount Mitchell, the highest point in the eastern U.S. and the first North Carolina state park in anticipation of the 2016 state parks centennial year.
The mountain is named after former UNC geology professor Elisha Mitchell, who first measured its elevation in 1835 using a mercury barometer. Dr. Mitchell’s calculations were surprisingly accurate, just 12 feet shy of the true 6,684 feet. His former student Thomas Clingman famously disputed his discoveries. Dr. Mitchell slipped off a waterfall to his death in 1857 while on expedition to prove his claim. Thankfully, Kelvin kept safe by staying on park trails.
Physics allows us to see the low atmospheric pressure or “thin air” atop Mount Mitchell. Here’s a simple experiment: take an unopened bag of potato chips or dried fruit from the valley and drive it up to the summit. Decreasing pressure causes air molecules to expand, inflating or even popping your bag. This change in atmospheric pressure also accounts for the mountain’s weather wonders. Average summer high temperatures are only near 65 degrees Fahrenheit, and the average annual snowfall is a whopping 120 inches.
One environmental challenge clearly visible at the park are the dead Fraser fir trees. Scientists link this die-off with air pollution and an exotic-invasive insect, the balsam wooly adelgid. Thankfully, young fir trees are regenerating, likely with the help of modern technology that reduces air pollution. And, scientists are actively working on new ways to combat the invasive bugs.
With more young scientists interested in STEM, Mount Mitchell State Park has a bright future. We hope you join Kelvin in NC Science Festival activities at 41 state parks from April 8-24, 2016.