UNCA studies recent severe winter weather

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 16, 2011

As people across the Southeast hunkered down for massive snowfalls this month, UNC Asheville Atmospheric Sciences professor Doug Miller and his students headed out into the storm. The group worked around the clock launching weather balloons to collect important atmospheric data that will help scientists better understand winter weather. In the process, they were able to provide information to the National Weather Service to ensure accurate forecasts.
The January balloon launches are part of ongoing winter weather research that began in December 2006. It is the first substantial study to observe winter weather in Western North Carolina and surrounding regions, said Miller, the project director and associate professor and chair of UNC Asheville’s Atmospheric Sciences Department.
When a winter storm approaches, Miller and his students scramble to launch weather balloons –— no matter what the hour.
“Getting to be a part of the project, even though it was in the middle of the night, was really cool,” said Chris Zarzar, a UNC Asheville senior from Chapel Hill. “For a weather weenie like me, it was a real adrenaline rush to get the equipment together and to get it launched right.”
The helium weather balloons, which measure 4 feet in diameter and can rise 50,000 feet into the atmosphere, are attached to instrument packages that record pressure, temperature and humidity. The data is transmitted back to computers at a base camp in the Swannanoa River Valley. Miller and his students analyze the data and immediately make it available to the National Weather Service (NWS) offices in Greenville, S.C., Blacksburg, Va., and Morristown, Tenn.
Sometimes, this real-time data can make all the difference. In December, Miller and his student team received data that conflicted with NWS computer model forecasts for the foothills of North and South Carolina. As a result, the forecast was updated.
“Our findings that day indicated a really good chance that strong winds during a northwest flow would mix down to the ground and impact people,” Miller said. “The National Weather Service revised their high-wind watches to warnings. And indeed, the foothills received stronger winds than originally expected.”
This applied hands-on research aspect appeals to students. “It’s so rewarding,” said junior Daniel Martin of Hendersonville. “As students, we do a lot of theory in the classroom, but to actually go out into the field and do it in practice keeps us motivated and encouraged.”
Senior Aurelia Baca agrees. She helped launch weather balloons in Avery County last winter, which made her curious about the effects of La Nina and El Nino on winter weather. Now, she’s conducting her own undergraduate research project and will present her findings this spring.
Like many meteorologists, Baca expected this winter to be a bit milder than last year because of La Nina. Instead, temperatures are below normal with higher than average snowfall.
As Miller explained, colder air is being pushed into the eastern United States by effects the North Atlantic Oscillation, which is overriding the more moderate La Nina effect. “It’s fair to say that the North Atlantic Oscillation is having a significant impact on our weather, but that’s good for our research,” said Miller.
Miller hopes to continue the study to unravel the mysteries of winter weather. He is applying for National Science Foundation funding to continue the research — with an additional practical twist. The proposal aims to create a collaboration with the Buncombe County School District to assist with its decision making process for delaying or canceling classes. Miller notes that timely and accurate forecasts during potentially hazardous winter weather may help keep students out of harm’s way or may save the school district lost days in the classroom.
“It’s exciting to know that our work can help keep the public safe by providing accurate forecasts,” Zarzar said. “I know this is really rare for an undergrad to experience. At UNC Asheville we have the best opportunities to be involved in research. I’ll tell you, it’s something I’m so glad I get to experience.”
UNC Asheville’s Atmospheric Sciences Department, which offers concentrations in climatology and weather forecasting, prepares students for careers and graduate school. In addition to class work, students in this program are encouraged to pursue undergraduate research, internships and field experiences. Alumni from the program have found successful careers at the Weather Channel, the National Weather Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as local television stations and private consulting companies.
Research funding for the winter weather study has been provided by the COMET Outreach Program, National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center, Naval Postgraduate School, Renaissance Computing Institute, University of North Carolina system and UNC Asheville.