Towering over Patton Avenue in Downtown Asheville is an impressive, yet oddly silent, building. It sits quietly as the daily whirlwind of people, vehicles, and weather sweep past the structure. Its inhabitants are a branch of the National Oceanic and Weather Administration (NOAA) known as the National Center for Environmental Information (NCEI).
“Climate is the long-term study of weather, and we have weather documents housed here from the 1740s to the present,” said Greg Hammer, meteorologist for the NCEI. “Nowadays, most
everything comes in through satellites and high-speed internet, things like radar and satellite data. The coverage is global in nature, but the main concentration is on the United States.”
So, why Asheville? During World War II, the government utilized the Grove Arcade as a U.S. Postal Service key punch operation. At that time, weather records were stored in New Orleans, a location prone to flooding and hurricanes.
Following World War II, the government transferred the records to the Grove Arcade. After all, the location already had a trained federal workforce inside a large building to hold the materials. And it was within a day’s train ride of Washington, D.C. (It was now the Cold War and the records needed safekeeping. Those records are now held within the current Patton Avenue site.)
“The data we have is priceless. And the amount of data we have is mind blowing,” Hammer said. “Basically, if you were to take the latest model iPhone and convert all of our data to be stored on the latest iPhone, it would be iPhone stacked on top of iPhone stacked on top of iPhone until it was more than 15 times as high as the Eiffel Tower.”
All of the data collected is analyzed and used for a variety of reasons, each as vital to the functionality and survival of everyday society in the digital age.
“You can use the data to detect a tornado formation earlier, which can save lives by warning the public faster and most efficiently as to where the tornado may strike,” Hammer said. “Or perhaps an airport is putting in a new runway and they need to know what the prevailing wind direction and wind speed are so they can orient the runway in the proper formation.”
When looking at Western North Carolina, Hammer noted the four definite seasons that make the region such a unique and enjoyable landscape for weather and climate.
“There’s a reason so many people over the centuries have headed for these mountains—it’s always been a travel destination, and a place to call home,” he said. “We don’t get the severe weather that other areas of the country get. And yet, we have such great diversity of ecosystems represented here.”
From a young age, Hammer was utterly fascinated with weather and how it affects the planet. Originally from Richmond, Virginia, he landed in Western North Carolina by attending college at UNC Asheville, where he pursued a meteorology degree. The university’s renowned program was created decades ago due to the local presence of NOAA.
“I knew as a kid that all I wanted to do was study weather. My favorite part of the evening news on TV was watching the weather,” Hammer chuckled. “And now, with my work at NOAA and NCEI, I get to study everything from the surface of the sun to the ocean floor. It’s pretty amazing.”
See Science in Action
NCEI doesn’t offer tours of the facility to the general public. However, locals and visitors are encouraged to visit the nearby Asheville Museum of Science (above) or the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) in Transylvania County.