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Data in action at the NCEI headquarters

The Asheville-headquarterd National Centers for Environmental Information collect + share climate data with businesses and organizations to drive resilience for the future.

The federal building on Patton Avenue in downtown Asheville

Asheville has been a climate hub since the National Weather Records Center was established here in 1951.

Photo by AVLtoday

Several months ago, we wrote about an $85 million investment for a new climate data program. The program, called Industry Proving Grounds (IPG), is led by the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) — whose headquarters sits on Patton Avenue in downtown Asheville.

Turns out — many folks didn’t know that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s NCEI is overseen from our little mountain town. So we sat down with Mike Brewer, Chief of the Climate Information Services Branch, to dive deeper into what goes on behind the concrete walls of the Veach-Baley Federal Complex.

Inside the NCEI

When you step beyond the towering atrium, the NCEI halls look just like any other government office (City Editor Molly here — I’ll admit, I was hoping for the giant computer screens and flashing control panels à la “Apollo 13"). However, past the gray doors sit climate scientists, meteorologists, geophysicists, and oceanographers, not to mention the NCEI director + deputy director, administrative services, the IT department, and historical archivists.

Broadly, the job of NCEI is to collect environmental data — from the ocean floor to the surface of the sun and everything in between — and make it accessible to individuals, businesses, and organizations for free.

Fun fact(s): When Jason Boyer gets on TV for the WLOS weather segment, the climate normals he presents with the forecast are all produced in-house by NCEI. The data that informs USDA drought disaster declarations + aid for farmers is from the NCEI. The National Climate Assessment, which is released every four years on behalf of the US Government and becomes part of an international report, is created by a unit that was a floor up from where we were sitting for this interview. There’s a lot going on in there.

“Our city probably has one of the largest, if not the largest, accumulation of climate expertise in the world,” Brewer said. “The people who live here and work here are climate rockstars.”

Brewer and his team specifically work directly with customers. “Climate services is mostly sharing information in someone’s decision space to help them make better decisions within a climate context,” he said.

That involves coordinating with businesses and organizations in all sorts of industries to provide information that allows them to operate more safely, economically, efficiently, and environmentally.

A satellite image of the worldwide auroras in May 2024

NCEI climate data can be used in sectors from agriculture to retail.

Photo via @noaasatellites

Down-to-earth data

The information housed in the NCEI archives reaches sectors all over the country — and not only the ones you might expect.

  • A utility company might consult climate services to determine the frequency of wind gusts exceeding a certain speed in an area, ensuring they can build resilient facilities.
  • A disaster recovery organization could get a prediction of how many natural disasters to prepare for two or three years out.
  • A legal team can access data to confirm the presence of sidewalk ice for a civil suit.

Making use of the investment

That’s already happening every day, and this new investment will only expand that reach. The IPG program investment will allow NCEI to build new products, find better ways to deliver those products, and modernize some of its existing data architecture for greater reliability.

Brewer offered an example: In the US, hail is a ~$15 billion-per-year problem. It causes lots of damage to crops, cars, and other property, but the NCEI doesn’t have a dedicated database for it. The hail-related data is spread out all over different datasets. So some of the investment will go to additional hail research and developing a dedicated database.

As part of the IPG, the NCEI is also working with the US Air Force to add engineering weather data into its archive for public consumption. This type of information is used to inform engineering standards for building codes, making sure structures are safe for years to come.

This only scratches the surface of NCEI’s impact — so explore for yourself. All of the resources, products, and services are available for free to anyone.

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