Practically Speaking

Q&A: Weather Data Mission Control

NOAA's National Climatic Data Center, UNC Asheville enjoy a healthy symbiosis

By Kathleen DesMarteau

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The world’s largest repository of climate information resides in the heart of Asheville, with close ties to UNC Asheville. NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) has been headquartered in the Land of the Sky since 1951, serving as the steward of U.S. weather information and providing weather data services to scientists and industry around the world.

Its proximity was a prime motivator for the formation of UNC Asheville’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences in the early 1980s. Tim Owen ’92 (Atmospheric Sciences), is operations planning officer at NCDC, and a former adjunct professor at UNC Asheville. We caught up with him to hear more about this productive partnership.

NCDC has a far-reaching charter as keeper of U.S. weather data. What are its key focus areas?

Our mission can be summarized in three “S’s:” science, stewardship of data, and service of data. The science aspect supports quality control of our data holdings. The stewardship is making sure we handle the data appropriately — safely storing it and providing ready access. We also provide use-inspired service and product development. One of our most popular products is called ‘climate normals.’ The energy industry is very interested in it for setting rates and making other decisions.

What are some developments at NCDC that benefit UNC Asheville students?

We’re really excited about the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites, an effort affiliated with North Carolina State University that reaches students and faculty in the entire UNC system. We also have a strong collaborative relationship with UNC Asheville’s National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center (NEMAC), and the Renaissance Computing Institute at UNC Asheville’s Engagement Site downtown. Both of those groups are engaged with UNC Asheville students, and it makes for a great partnership, bridging to other federal agencies in the community.

National Climatic Data Center by the Numbers

  • 15 Percent of staff are UNC Asheville alumni
  • 6,500 Terabytes of data archived (equal to about 7.1 billion Kindle books)
  • 1,000 Terabytes of data provided to users annually
  • 150 Years of weather data archived
  • 30 Years of satellite weather data collected
ncdc couple of students studying in Cuba."

How does interaction between NCDC and the university help our students and graduates?

Not surprisingly, NCDC is a frequent employer of UNC Asheville students. Having experience working in the federal sector is powerful; it gives you an opportunity to see public service in action. Because we hold such a vast array of information, our interns gain knowledge that will benefit them in many endeavors.

What’s one of the coolest research projects you are working on right now?

I’m a member of the National Phenology Network. Phenology is the study of the natural environment and its changes, such as the seasonal green-up and loss of leaves. There is great interest in knowing when the onset of spring will be, and how it may be changing with climate variability. We help the U.S. Department of Agriculture with updates to the plant hardiness maps you see at nurseries. It’s really an interesting area.

Beyond the Bachelor’s

UNC Asheville enables atmospheric science professionals to continue their education at the post-baccalaureate level with certification through its Climate Change and Society program. The current cohort is covering topics such as how human activities affect future climates, and methods for communicating atmospheric science information to the general public.

Tim Owen, operations planning officer for Asheville’s National Climatic Data Center, said his staff has made good use of the program as they work to communicate climate science in a meaningful way to the public. “‘Climate literacy’ is a phrase we use a lot,” Owen said, “and it’s a very important part our service mission to help people understand what’s going on with the climate in straightforward language.”

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