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11 Clear Facts About Great Smoky Mountains National Park

America's most visited national park features about 520,000 acres that stretch across five counties in Tennessee and North Carolina. Great Smoky Mountains National Park's free admission, impressive variety of flora and fauna, and easy accessibility to one-third of the U.S. population—reachable by a little more than a day’s drive in most cases—make it a must-see destination for more than 9 million people each year. Here are 10 facts to know before you head for the Smokies.

1. THE MOUNTAINS’ SIGNATURE SMOKY HAZE IS CREATED BY EVAPORATION AND HIGH ELEVATION.

Over 80 inches of annual rainfall combined with the evaporation from the trees create the characteristic wispy clouds that weave through the mountains. That dreamy mist is the inspiration behind the smoky nickname that has lasted for centuries; the Cherokee called the region Shaconage, which translates to “mountains of the blue smoke.”

2. THE PARK'S CREATION WAS SPARKED, IN PART, BY A TRAVEL WRITER'S NEW LEASE ON LIFE ...

After he lost his job and his wife left with their six children, librarian and writer Horace Kephart opted for a clean start in the Smokies. Mountain life inspired him to write Camping and Woodcraft: A Guidebook for Those Who Travel in the Wilderness, still considered a must-read for serious outdoorsmen.

Eventually, concern over logging companies' decades-old practice of stripping the forests motivated him to protect his beloved Appalachian home. Along with likeminded people, including motorists involved with the American Automobile Association, Kephart worked to get the area designated as a park. Unfortunately, Kephart was killed in a 1931 car crash before he got a chance to see the results of his efforts. To recognize his contributions to the national treasure, a 6217-foot peak in the park was named Mount Kephart.

3. ... AND HELP FROM A JAPANESE PHOTOGRAPHER.

George Masa, born Masahara Iizuka, immigrated from Osaka, Japan to the U.S. to study mining. After working at an upscale hotel near the Smokies, he eventually opened his own photography studio. Masa photographed the Great Smoky Mountains, and his images (usually accompanied by text from his friend Kephart) were used in articles and other promotional materials to support the creation of the national park.

4. THE LAND WAS PURCHASED IN AN UNCONVENTIONAL WAY.

To create the national park, Congress required that only money from the states or private donations be used to buy the land. Residents of Tennessee and North Carolina pledged $5 million for the project; still, that was only half of the amount they needed. Fortunately, John D. Rockefeller donated the additional $5 million after seeing Kephart and Masa’s work, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt allocated the last $1.5 million needed to complete the project. This was the first time federal funds were used to buy land for a national park.

5. AN AMPLE AMOUNT OF AMPHIBIANS LIVE THERE.

Visitors make the trek to spot black bears, elk, and white-tailed deer, but the Smokies are also home to over 30 species of salamanders. In fact, the park is known as the Salamander Capital of the World. Although they are amphibians and not reptiles, the salamanders are sometimes referred to locally as “spring lizards.”

6. CATALOGING THE BIODIVERSITY IS A COMMUNITY EFFORT.

Discover Life in America’s All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory catalogs the staggering variety of wildlife in the park and estimates that there are over 100,000 different organisms in the Great Smokies. Citizen scientists help with other projects, such as replanting ginseng and collecting dragonflies for mercury testing.

7. IT HAS BEEN INTERNATIONALLY RECOGNIZED FOR ITS PLANT AND ANIMAL LIFE.


Because of its vast array of plant and animal life, the park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976 and certified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. Over 100 types of native trees and shrubs have been identified in the park—more variety than all of northern Europe.

8. IT HAS BEEN USED AS A TV SET.

In the 1950s, Disney produced a television-series-turned-live-action film called Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. Some scenes for the show about America’s favorite frontiersman were filmed at the park, specifically around the Mountain Farm Museum area.

9. DOLLY PARTON HAS SERVED AS AN OFFICIAL PARK AMBASSADOR.

U.S. senators and representatives, state governors, and the Secretary of the Interior all attended the re-dedication of the park on its 75th anniversary in 2009, but they might have been overshadowed by the presence of Tennessee’s own Dolly Parton, who performed at the event as an official park ambassador.

10. HISTORIC BUILDINGS ARE FEATURED THROUGHOUT THE PARK.

The legacy of 18th- and 19th-century Appalachian settlers lives in the more than 90 historic structures on park grounds, nine of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. The Cades Cove Loop Road showcases some of the best examples of early Appalachian architecture, including the John Oliver Cabin (built in 1822 and the oldest structure in the park), Primitive Baptist Church (pictured above), and Methodist Church.

11. THE PARK'S ONLY HOTEL OFFERS A NO-FRILLS PLACE TO STAY.

The LeConte Lodge is the only indoor lodging available on park grounds but visitors shouldn’t expect a luxurious stay. Opened in 1926 and accessible only by hiking, there is no running water, electricity, or telephone at this location atop Mount Le Conte. The trek to LeConte is so steep that trained llamas are used to carry supplies to the lodge three days a week.

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One Day, You May Not Have to Take Your Laptop Out at the Airport
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TSA security lines might be a little less annoying in the future. According to Condé Nast Traveler, the agency will soon test new airport scanners that allow you to keep your liquids and laptop in your carry-on bag during security screening, a benefit currently only available to those who have been accepted into the agency’s PreCheck program.

The ConneCT scanners have met the TSA's "advanced technology detection standards," according to the company that makes them, Analogic, meaning that they can be tested out at airports across the U.S.

Computed tomography scanning technology is regularly used in hospitals and research labs for everything from diagnosing cancer to studying mummies. The imaging technique uses x-rays that rotate around whatever object is being imaged to create 3D images that provide more detail than those created by the regular x-ray scanners currently used to inspect carry-on luggage.

The ConneCT scanners have been in the works for 10 years. The devices have x-ray cameras that spin around the conveyor belt that holds your bag, creating a 3D image of it. Then algorithms help flag whether there's something suspicious inside so that it can be pulled aside for further screening by hand. They've already been tested in airports in Phoenix and Boston, but haven't been used on a national level yet.

But don't expect to see the high-tech scanners at your local airport anytime soon. According to the TSA, they have to undergo yet more testing before any of the machines can be deployed, and there’s no timetable for that yet.

Until then, as you're packing your liquids, just remember—you can always just freeze them.

[h/t Conde Nast Traveler]

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Big Questions
What Are the Northern Lights?
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Over the centuries, many have gazed up at one of the Earth’s most fascinatingly beautiful natural wonders: the Northern Lights. In the past couple of weeks, some lucky American stargazers have gotten the chance to see them from their very own backyards—and could again this week, according to Thrillist. But what are they?

Before science was able to get a read on what exactly was happening in the night sky, ancient tribes had their own theories for what caused the jaw-dropping light show. Many early beliefs had roots in religion, such as that the light was a pathway souls traveled to reach heaven (Eskimo tribes) or that the light was an eternal battle of dead warriors (Middle-Age Europe). Early researchers were a bit more reasonable in their approximations, and most surrounded the idea of the reflection of sunlight off the ice caps. In 1619, Galileo Galilei named the lights the aurora borealis after Aurora, the Roman goddess of morning, after concluding they were a product of sunlight reflecting from the atmosphere.

Today, scientists have come to the general agreement that the lights are caused by the collision of electrically charged solar particles and atoms from our atmosphere. The energy from the collisions is released as light, and the reason it happens around the poles is because that's where the Earth’s magnetic field is the strongest. In 2008, a team at UCLA concluded that “when two magnetic field lines come close together due to the storage of energy from the sun, a critical limit is reached and the magnetic field lines reconnect, causing magnetic energy to be transformed into kinetic energy and heat. Energy is released, and the plasma is accelerated, producing accelerated electrons.”

"Our data show clearly and for the first time that magnetic reconnection is the trigger," said Vassilis Angelopoulos, a UCLA professor of Earth and Space Sciences. "Reconnection results in a slingshot acceleration of waves and plasma along magnetic field lines, lighting up the aurora underneath even before the near-Earth space has had a chance to respond. We are providing the evidence that this is happening."

The best time to see the Northern Lights is during the winter, due to the Earth’s position in relation to the sun (shorter days means darker night skies). And by the way, it’s not just the North Pole that puts on a show—there are Southern Lights, too. There are also aurora borealis on other planets—including Mars—so rest assured that future generations born “abroad” will not miss out on this spectacular feat of nature.

Haven’t seen them yet? Traditionally, the best places to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights are in Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, northern Canada, and Alaska. Maybe you'll get lucky this week and sneak a peek from your very own window. Check out Aurorasaurus for regular updates on where they are showing.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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