Students and Faculty Help Unravel Mysteries of Winter Weather
Their Findings Used by National Weather Service
The massive winter storm that blanketed the South with ice and snow earlier this month delayed the start of UNC Asheville’s spring semester by three days. But it didn’t stop Atmospheric Sciences professor Doug Miller and his student researchers.
This intrepid group headed out into the storm, working 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.
“Getting to be a part of the project, even though it was in the middle of the night, was really cool,” said senior Chris Zarzar. “For a weather weenie like me, it was a real adrenaline rush to get the equipment together and to get it launched right.”
The January balloon launches are part of on-going 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 helium weather balloons, which measure four 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. “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 Niña and El Niño 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 Niña. Instead, temperatures are below normal with higher than average snowfall.
As Miller explained, colder air is being pushed into the eastern United States by the North Atlantic Oscillation, which is overriding the more moderate La Niña 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.