By Margaret V. Williams
It’s a good bet you didn’t know Asheville has a weather museum, nor that it has the world’s largest archive of climate data in the world. But it does, and there’s a vision brewing for its future.
“We have a gem ... a ‘one and only’ in Asheville, and we as a community should take advantage of that,” says retired meteorologist Steve Doty of Asheville.
That gem is the National Climate Data Center, headquartered in the Federal building in downtown Asheville. It houses a small weather museum and the world’s largest archive of climatic data, Doty notes. In a time of increased awareness and concern about global warming, he argues, both NCDC functions are an invaluable resource for the area’s educational, business and tourism industries.
Deep in the basement, almost 200 years’ worth of largely handwritten weather observations from the U.S. and the world are stacked in towering shelves that weigh so much, they can’t be stored anywhere else in the building. In the museum, visitors can find such intriguing gems as old weather balloons, antique rain-measuring barrels, a log of the first weather observations taken in Asheville, visual aids that use climate data to show such things as why the Weaverville area has historically been called “Dry Ridge,” photos of the early days of weather observation and data collection and more, Doty mentions.
Up in NCDC’s main offices, the agency collects so much weather-related data each day, its files would exceed every document in the Library of Congress in as little as three weeks, says NCDC meteorologist Greg Hammer, who runs the museum.
Doty and a committee of like-minded souls would like to see the museum expanded and made more accessible so it can fully fulfill its educational mission. After the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11, the street-front entrance that would have welcomed visitors was closed and replaced with a rear, high-security entrance, he explains. Doty and such area leaders as N.C. Arboretum director George Briggs want to explore such possibilities as relocating the museum and creating a business center that makes NCDC’s resources more accessible -- and more of a draw for companies that might be interested in locating in Western North Carolina.
To that end, Doty, Briggs and other members of the “Climate Alive” effort, have garnered a $10,000 grant from The Hub Project, a broad effort to build business and job opportunities around the unique assets available in the Asheville area. “Climate Alive” members are also seeking a larger, feasibility-study grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NCDC’s parent agency.
Arboretum director Briggs chairs the local committee. He remarks that a new, more visitor-friendly museum and resource center “could be one significant facility or several, [so] let’s bring in the experts for a feasibility-study to help us refine the idea. That’s our next challenge, to get the funding together.”
Briggs explains his involvement as a natural extension of the “special synergy here in Asheville with the Arboretum and the NCDC.” The Arboretum, which is part of the North Carolina university system, showcases the biodiversity of the region and the NCDC houses much of the data for the physical science that helps us understand it, particularly with regard to the weather that influences the environment we live in, he says. That synergy came together seven years ago, when the first U.S. weather station for the Climate Reference Network was dedicated and placed at the Arboretum, Briggs continues. The new weather station was the first one installed for a new, long-term study of climate change in the United States.
A wealth of data is already available at NCDC, and it is more and more accessible, Hammer points out. He stood beside row after row of metal shelves that run the length and breadth of a cavernous room in the basement of the Federal Building. The shelves towered over Hammer by at least 10 feet and many of them sag from the weight of labeled and boxed records. “I’ve been told,” he says lightheartedly, “that this room is like the endless government vault in [one of the] Indiana Jones movies, or if you’re of a younger set, the vault in [a] Harry Potter novel.”
It’s an amazing collection of data. Hammer pulls down a box labeled “Athens, GA. 1967-1970.” Inside the box is a ledger containing column after column of meticulous handwritten notes about daily rainfall amounts, temperatures and surface conditions.There are boxes from just about every U.S. town and remote points in between, such as a lonely weather station called “Lost Nation.”
Such records have been taken in Asheville at least since Dr. William McDowell (of the historic Smith-McDowell Home fame) wrote down rainfall amounts in an 1850s ledger book stored by the museum. Such historical records have allowed meteorologists to overlay rainfall figures for the region over a topographical map on display in the first-floor museum: It provides a visual tool for understanding why the broad valley that contains Weaverville has historically been called “Dry Ridge” and why the mountaintop areas are temperate rainforests; the peaks of the Highlands/Cashiers area receive well over 90 inches of precipitation per year (only the Cascades in Washington state receive more), while the Asheville valley area receives 40 or less, Hammer points out.
But paper records are difficult to access or study on a large scale: If someone requests any of the data contained in the “paper” vaults, a clerk can locate the individual file, pull it out, copy it and mail it to them, Hammer explains. It’s not a fast or efficient process. So, starting in the 1970s, such data was recorded on microfiche and microfilm, and now it’s all stored digitally on data tapes which -- if used for music in a souped-up MP3 player -- could store about 1 million songs, Hammer continues. Those tapes are about the size of a wallet, and housed in a high-tech computerized cabinet that, like a juke-box for data, can locate a tape, copy the relative content and e-mail it to anywhere in the world.
The switch to digital storage is an inevitable evolution and a necessary one, and not simply because digital information can be accessed so much more easily and rapidly: Paper degrades, and so do microfilm and microfiche. “They smell like rotten eggs,” Hammer mentions. Efforts to save the data mean the time-consuming, ongoing effort of transcribing the information into digtal formats, one document at a time, he goes on.
But the amazing thing is not the 60 million old files contained in the basement, says Hammer: “It’s the fact that we now receive this amount of data every day, and every three weeks, we receive the equivalent of the amount of data the Library of Congress houses, if it were all digitized.”
Much of that data is available online at NCDC’s Web site, which receives 300 million hits a year, a figure that’s growing exponentially, Hammer points out. The data is used by students, by researchers, by scientists, by forecasters, or by such business people as architects seeking information about such things as the amount of snowfall an area receives so they know the best way to design a roof to hold up to it, he says.
The museum demonstrates the evolution of weather observation: It houses mercury barometers from 1890, two long tubes that look like old rifle barrels. There are photos of what had to be a sweltering office in New Orleans, where women clerks recorded data on punch cards. Those offices were moved to Asheville in 1951 (even then, there was concern about keeping such sensitive records in an area at risk for severe hurricanes, Hammer comments). There are old weather balloons and the “radio sondes” that went up with them. These weather-measuring devices were housed in non-descript styrofoam compartments attached to the balloon; as the balloon ascends, the radio sonde transmits data.
By the time the balloon gets high in the atmosphere, it has expanded to the size of a small house, and soon bursts, dropping the radio sonde back down to earth (or water, if it went out over the Atlantic, Pacific or Gulf of Mexico). You may discover one in your backyard, and it has a box for mailing it back to the appropriate government agency. “Even in this modernized world, we still rely on weather balloons,” says Hammer.
That world is changing, and it’s sensitive to the environment and climate/weather issues, says Greg Wilson, president of Baron Advanced Meteorological Systems. His company set up offices in the Candler area about four years ago, specializing in weather equipment, radar systems and data for media companies, the aviation industries, researchers and more. The NCDC was a draw for bringing part of his company to the Asheville area, and it could be a draw for other companies, Wilson and his fellow committee members Briggs and Doty agree.
“The environment has become an economic engine,” he remarks. The NCDC fits into that development, with climate issues driving the need for more and more data, both historic and current, Wilson comments. “Without the data, you can’t have the science, and without the science you can’t study climate change, and without [studying it], you can’t do what you do need to do to change it in the future.”