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Atmospheric Sciences students help unravel mysteries of mountain rainfall patterns

By Jill C. Yarnall

rain gauge

Anna Wilson (left) and Greg Cutrell (right) install a rain gauge at Purchase Knob, Haywood County.

Doug Miller is waiting for rain. The Atmospheric Sciences professor has a lot at stake. He’s banking on the clouds opening up in order to complete an 18-month NASA-funded rainfall study he’s been working on with Ana Barros of Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering.

Miller and Barros began their work in 2007, exploring the nature of rainfall in the Western North Carolina mountains. The Appalachian Mountains create unique weather patterns, Miller explains. “The way clouds form over the Midwest can be quite different from how they develop over mountains,” he says. “There’s a lot about cloud formation and rainfall over mountains that atmospheric scientists just don’t know.”

Why study mountain rainfall?

arrowWatersheds of the Southern Appalachian Mountains provide drinking water for 10 million people.

arrowWestern North Carolina registered the highest precipitation amounts in the continental United States after Hurricanes Ivan and Frances in 2004. arrowThe average annual rainfall in Great Smoky Mountains National Park ranges from 55 inches in the valleys to more than 85 inches on some peaks—more than anywhere in the U.S. except the Pacific Northwest.

arrowThe average annual rainfall in Haywood County, where the study takes place, is 47.5 inches.

Miller and seven UNC Asheville students are helping to unravel the mystery of mountain rainfall patterns. Over the last two summers, they’ve placed 20 high-tech rain gauges, designed to collect and record rainfall via battery-powered computer packs, at remote sites in the Pigeon River Basin in Haywood County. They monitored the equipment, helped download data and sent it to Miller and Barros, who are grateful for the help of students willing to hike up mountainsides in the name of science. “The research has benefited from these smart and dedicated undergraduate research assistants,” Barros says, citing the leadership of Anna Wilson ’09 (Atmospheric Sciences) in gauge calibration, maintenance and data transmission.

This summer Wilson, of Syracuse, N.Y., will help install 12 gauges in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After working on the project last year, she knows the advantages of doing fieldwork. “Dealing with the instruments is the best part for me,” she says. “The whole process, from calibrating and installing the devices to retrieving the data, helps me understand the concepts behind the study. It’s really given me a grasp on how research takes place, and I think this experience will be really helpful in getting a job.”

Wilson believes that her work on the study already has given her a leg up in landing an internship at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville. The fieldwork has been helpful to graduates, too. Greg Cutrell, a 2008 field researcher, is in graduate school at the University of Nebraska; Robbie Munroe, a 2007 researcher, is in graduate school at East Carolina; and John Allard is employed at the S.C. Department of Air Quality.

For Miller, their success is his success. “I hope that one day I can work with these graduates as a fellow colleague,” he says. “Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll ask if I can work on their research projects.”

Jill C. Yarnall is assistant director of News Services at UNC Asheville.

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