Deke Arndt, chief of the monitoring branch at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was invited to address the science behind climate change at Leadership Asheville Forum.
Arndt said their primary role is to gather all the weather and climate data they receive and combine it with weather and climate data amassed over the years.
“We’re kind of like the Fort Knox of climate data,” he said.
The reason this data center is in Asheville is a product of the Cold War. “In the early 1950s a lot of the vital records repositories got moved away from targets that were on Khrushchev’s A list, and relocated to more remote locations. When you’re dealing with a lot of paper records, which is what we were handling at the time, you want a place with relatively low humidity, but they also wanted them to be available by at most a one day train ride from Washington.”
A petabyte equals a million gigabytes of data. The National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) has 29 of them.
“If you filled up iPhones with our data, our data holding would fill up a stack of iPhones 17 Eiffel Towers high. The most popularly accessed data are the local observation from around the world. Now that we have radar and satellites generating data at ridiculous rates, that’s what’s really filling up our disk space,” Arndt said.
Technical professionals and academics that use weather data for science technology engineering present a majority of their inquiries.
“Ecosystems like Agro and Aquaculture are obviously very sensitive to weather and climate, so Monsanto is a huge user of our information. They basically pull it from our archives and run their models against our data. Transportation and infrastructure are big users, claiming climate data such as how often does it rain and typical freeze-thaw cycles are important to know. Energy demand is very sensitive to wind, how warm or cold it’s going to be, and where the people live,” he said.
NCEI also provides a great deal of information to settle lawsuits and insurance claims.
Associates from around the world send information based on their area of expertise, so this data would include everything from notes on glaciers in Norway to notes about the southern ocean in Chile.
“We compile these pieces of the climate system in the atmosphere, on land and in the oceans into a diagnostic report. The National Climate Assessment is actually published out of Asheville. The NCEI is the monitoring branch with the short-term real time information. Our sister branch does the technical work of finding data to serve the 300-plus experts guided by the 60 member Federal Advisory Committee that produce the annually updated report,” Arndt said.
The metric that people pay the most attention to is the global temperature. The graphics from 1880 to present can be found on their website at www.climate.gov.
“We’re getting warmer, but not by one single value that’s added every year. There’s a lot of hopping up and down, but the long term warming that we’re experiencing is like riding up an escalator. It’s being driven almost entirely by escalating greenhouse gas concentration increases, trapping more heat and warming the bottom of the atmosphere. It’s not an expectation or reality that each year will be warmer than the previous one, but is an expectation and has been the truth so far that each decade will be warmer than the previous one,” Arndt said.
A wide range of other data can be looked up by category at www.ncei.noaa.gov.
“It’s not just global temperature. The glaciers are retreating, and we’re losing mass in ice sheets, especially in the northern hemisphere where most of the ice is. Permafrost is thawing in the Canadian Arctic, the Russian Arctic, and in Alaska. That has consequences. Much of the infrastructure in Alaska was built assuming the ground would be frozen permanently. When the ground thaws you get heating in oil pipelines, buildings with unstable foundations, and whole villages need to be relocated inland onto ground that’s still frozen solid,” he said.
A direct economic consequence affecting Asheville concerns our pristine water supply.
“We have this wonderful beer industry. The breweries are in Asheville because we have the best water in the eastern United States. The reason is that the rain and snow that falls in the higher elevations is falling into a Spruce Fir ecosystem. Ecologists tell me that the understory beneath the forest is about the best natural water filter anywhere, Arndt said.” Global warming is pushing Spruce Fir populations to ever higher elevations.
Arndt presents a colorful metaphor drawn from the 1975 motion picture “Rocky” to describe the relationship between weather and climate. Boxer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is to weather what his gym trainer Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) is to climate. “Climate trains the boxer, but weather throws the punches. Weather reacts to things in the immediate world around it. We don’t know what punch Rocky’s going to throw with two minutes and six seconds left in the seventh round of his next fight, but we know if we change the trainer he’s going to throw a lot more left hooks,” he said.
Arndt concluded his presentation with a heartwarming and inspirational story about the weather event that “absolutely shaped the psyche, future and history” of his family in Crowder Mountain, Oklahoma, the 1930s Dust Bowl. “It is a scar that we refer to constantly. The state lost a third of its population. On her deathbed, my grandmother Vivian shared this story about a girl named Idris with my mother. Idris’ mother had died, and Idris’ one mission throughout her teenage years was to make sure her little sister Gladys survived this time of thirst, famine, and desperation.”
The sisters moved from house to house at a time when families had fallen apart, and social fabric had all but unraveled. “It didn’t go well, and there were some bad men in Idris’ life. Gladys made it through the Dust Bowl, but Idris came through it by changing her name to ‘Vivian’ to distance herself from the tragedies of life during the Great Depression.”