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Why Are the Smoky Mountains Smoky?

January 19, 2024

Why are the Smoky Mountains smoky? Have you ever stopped to ponder this question and think about how the mountains of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina got their unique name? Anyone who has been to the Smokies can confirm that there is definitely a haze over the area that helps to create a magical setting! In fact, even the Cherokee referred to the area as “Shaconage,” or land of the blue smoke, as they considered the mountains to be a sacred place. If you wondered what makes them smoky in the first place, read on to discover the answer!

Origination of the Smoke

trees in the Smoky Mountains along Blueridge ParkwayThe “smoke” that you see in the Smoky Mountains is actually fog that comes from vegetation in the area! While plants take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, they also exhale something called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These are harmless natural chemicals that cause various scents and odors, such as the distinct piney smell from a Christmas tree! A high concentration of VOCs can also cause fog, since they are chemicals that can easily form vapors at room temperature. Since the millions of bushes, trees and other plant life in the Smoky Mountains come together to give off vapor, it creates the fog that gives the Smokies their unique

The Air Pollution Factor

While it’s estimated that 80 percent of the fog in the Smokies comes from natural sources, air pollution does play a part in what makes the Smoky Mountains smoky. Sulfate particles are released into the air when coal is burned in the area, which blocks sunlight from getting through. The sulfate particles grow larger on humid days and create a white haze that can impact some of the beautiful views in the region. The exciting news is that the National Park Service has made considerable gains in improving air quality in the Smokies and recent studies have shown that the pollution is at the lowest level it has been in years!

Blue Colors in the Fog

smoky mountains blue hazeNow that you know the answer to the question “Why are the Smoky Mountains smoky,” you may still be wondering what causes the blue colors in the fog! The VOCs are responsible for the fog’s blue appearance because when vapor is released from the vegetation in the Smokies, the molecules that comprise the gas scatter blue light from the sky. This is a fascinating phenomenon that creates what the Cherokee refer to as “blue smoke.” This blueish tint is not confined to the Smoky Mountains, as you’ll also see it at Acadia National Park and any other forest with lots of pine trees. The Smokies are particularly blue and smoky because the most common trees in the area have high concentrations of VOCs that scatter the blue light.

Be sure to join us this upcoming season for the best white water rafting in the Smokies! And when your friends and family ask “why are the Smoky Mountains smoky,” you can impress them with this new knowledge! We look forward to seeing you soon!