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The Broadside (Transcript): A look inside America's climate data bunker

Anisa Khalifa: It feels like recently, every week we've had at least one intense, dangerous weather event.


Anisa Khalifa: Climate change is constantly keeping us on our toes — it can feel like we're falling behind in a race we can't win. But what if the best step forward is turning around and looking back at the past? One group of scientists is doing exactly that.

Jason Cooper: The next time something happens or if we have a new opportunity, how do we use what we know to determine that path and what we’re going to do next.

Anisa Khalifa: I’m Anisa Khalifa, and this week on the Broadside, we go back to the future – to see how centuries of weather data stored in a surprising location can help us face what’s ahead in the climate crisis.

Let’s start back in 1994.

Greg Hammer: So the date was June 12, 1994. The time of day is about 10:15pm.

Anisa Khalifa: This is Greg Hammer. For decades, he’s worked as a meteorologist with the National Centers for Environmental Information, or NCEI.

Greg Hammer: We are the official keepers of the nation's weather data.

Anisa Khalifa: As the keeper of the nation’s weather data, NCEI has the authority to certify requests for historical information on the weather. In other words, they officially say whether it rained or it didn’t on a given day in the past.

Greg Hammer: We can certify that this is the actual data as we received it.

Anisa Khalifa: Greg says NCEI receives thousands of these kinds of requests each year — people asking to confirm the climate in a specific region or fact check the weather on a particular day in history.

Greg Hammer: And that can be used in legal cases.

Anisa Khalifa: For weather data to be admissible in a courtroom, a lawyer must have it validated from NCEI.

So back to 1994. On June 12th, around 10:15 pm, a woman and man were killed in Brentwood, an affluent neighborhood in West Los Angeles. The double homicide eventually went to trial. And the prosecution built a case around witness testimony.

Greg Hammer: One of the people involved in the case, said that it was a clear, calm, moonlit night.

Anisa Khalifa: The legal team working on the case in LA called up NCEI to confirm those facts.

Greg Hammer: because if it had not been that clear, calm, moonlit night, as claimed, well, then how much else is in question?

Anisa Khalifa: Turns out it was a clear moonlit night.

Greg Hammer: Correct, correct yeah.

AK: So the prosecution got the green light to use it in their case against the defendant …. O.J. Simpson.


Unidentified Anchor: The murder trial of O.J. Simpson, there was more than enough proof today how highly charged the case…

Greg Hammer: It's one of those that you just remember, it sticks with you. And it was just like, oh wow, that can play an indirect but somewhat important part of that situation.

Anisa Khalifa: But having a small part in the trial of the century? — that’s just a sliver of what’s happening within the walls of this federal agency. Several floors below Greg’s office is a massive warehouse. Inside it are rows and rows of archival materials. These items hold the answers to the mysteries of our natural environment, and how weather patterns centuries ago are shaping climate science today.

We wanted to dig into these archives, so we sent producer Charlie Shelton-Ormond to check it out.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Hey Anisa.

Anisa Khalifa: Hey Charlie. Good to see you, So where exactly is this treasure trove?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Turns out the United States’ homebase for weather data is in the heart of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Asheville, North Carolina. It’s a few hours from our studio here in Durham. So I packed up my gear and headed west to see it for myself..

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: It’s a windy one today.

Anisa Khalifa: And just give us a quick snapshot of Asheville.Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Yeah, well if you drive west into Asheville like I did, you’re met with a beautiful mountain landscape. Here’s Peggy at the front desk at the city's visitor center. I’ll let her sum up the city -

Peggy: A beautiful, funky town. Lots of art, great food, music to die for and the mountains and trails are just fantastic.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: And a building right on the perimeter of downtown had what I was looking for — the National Centers for Environmental Information. So, with these gorgeous blue ridge mountains surrounding me, I went down into a windowless basement and met archivist Jason Cooper.

Anisa Khalifa: So what’d it look like stepping inside this warehouse?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Stacks on stacks of boxes —

Jason Cooper: There are currently 37,302 boxes in this room. This is the largest room in which we house our physical Archives collection. That's what we refer to anything non digital

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: So nearly 40,000 boxes – Jason Cooper also calls them units.

Jason Cooper: So a unit, it can be a box of paper… it can be a box of books…

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Also includes things like microfilms, old journals…

Jason Cooper: That in many cases hold unique weather climate oceanographic and geophysical records.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: And each holds a piece to a puzzle. They have records dating all the way back to 1735 — everything from measurements of hundred-year-old hurricanes to film strips of the sun.

Jason Cooper: So this particular one is a reel of solar observations. So these are actually full disk images of the sun.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: And these thousands of boxes aren’t just helping connect the dots for researchers— they’re also a periscope into our political past. It turns out weather can dictate history in some pretty big ways.

Jason Cooper: We have the observations from Dallas from the Kennedy assassination. weather was important that day. A cold front passed through Dallas early in the day bringing rainfall, but it had cleared by the afternoon when President Kennedy's motorcade made its way to the airport. And he decided to ride in an open-top vehicle, making the shot more possible and potentially changing the course of human history.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Essentially, any major recent moment in history that took place outside, they have some kind of record of it.

Anisa Khalifa: That is very cool!

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: it is very cool. Now I kind of geek out over archives like this — but what really got my attention here is that these old documents aren’t just collecting dust — they’re in conversation with something that’s affecting us right now, everywhere, every day.

Jason Cooper: This room is the foundation for climate research, being kind of at the bottom, if you will. This is the raw, the original observations on which all of our understanding of the climate and weather conditions are built.

Anisa Khalifa: So, why Asheville? I mean I wouldn’t immediately think of a picturesque mountain city as the home of a federal agency like this.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Yeah, well turns out Asheville hasn’t always been the home to this cornucopia of climatology. Back in the 1930s, records at weather bureaus across the country were piling up and things were getting out of hand, so they chose New Orleans as the central location to house this stuff. But….

Jason Cooper: New Orleans is not a good place to keep an archive, especially an archive of paper. And you can think of many, so we have flooding, we have humidity, we have storms, all sorts of issues that made New Orleans problematic.

Anisa Khalifa: Let’s just take a second to acknowledge the powerful irony here: these weather records couldn’t stay in New Orleans because right outside, the biggest threat was the very thing they were studying.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: That's right. And ultimately, the NCEI archives ended up in Asheville largely because of the city’s temperate climate and it’s not likely to experience intense weather events like hurricanes.

Jason Cooper: That's right, Asheville's climate is a huge advantage to being a climate research mecca.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: And so the safest place to preserve your data that is looking at the atmosphere and the outside weather is in a bunker in a basement in a warehouse in Asheville.

Jason Cooper: That's right, that's how it turned out.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: They've got a mountain of data and stories in these stacks. After Jason showed me around, I went back upstairs and got a look out the window at the mountains right outside the city. Remember that NCEI is embedded in the Blue Ridge, surrounded by these ancient mountains that have seen a lot of history – and in the middle of it is this archive, as a kind of environmental time capsule. Jason Cooper: And me and my place as an archivist, is to hold that memory, if you will, that past memory that will inform what we do going forward.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Jason’s archival work is helping lay the foundation for researchers to forecast the climate’s future. And part of that forecast means sounding the alarm on weather and climate disasters happening right now across the country, including in NCEI’s backyard.

Adam Smith: 2022 is yet another year and a series of active years in terms of the frequency, the diversity and the impact of these different weather and climate extremes, really, from coast to coast

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: A few floors above the archives, Adam Smith has been tracking something specific for several years — natural disasters with a big price tag. He’s an applied climatologist at NCEI.

Adam Smith: And the lead researcher for the US billion-dollar weather and climate research program.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Every year, Adam and his team release what’s called the Billion-Dollar Disaster Report.

Adam Smith: So a billion-dollar disaster is really any of these different weather and climate extremes that have the potential to inflict a lot of impact on populations, on economies, on sectors.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: These disasters include flooding, tornados, droughts, and more, and how their impact runs deep.

Adam Smith: Agricultural damage, crops, livestock, infrastructure, what we rely on every day, roads, bridges, levee systems, electrical grids, even military bases.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Adam has tracked this billion-dollar metric going back to 1980. And this probably won’t come as a surprise, but the frequency of these billion-dollar disasters has steadily been increasing.

Adam Smith: In fact, over the last seven years, there have been 122 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, they have taken over 5000 lives and have cost over $1 trillion in damage. And so what should we do moving forward, because we know these extremes will continue in the future.

Anisa Khalifa: And what is causing the impact of these disasters to be more severe?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: There are many different factors at play, but Adam shared three big ones. The first is that more people are moving to environmental hotspots.

Adam Smith: The wildland urban interface, particularly out west or river floodplains, or the coasts where a lot of people like to live, those are hazardous areas, but people are moving to those areas, even the US Southwest, they have tremendous water issues and and how the drought is impacting that.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Second is we just don’t have the right infrastructure to endure these things. For example, all the levees out there aren’t made with climate protection in mind. And third, and again no surprise here: climate change.

Adam Smith: Climate change is supercharging many of these extremes that lead to billion dollar disasters.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: I talked to Adam just a few weeks after his team released their 2022 report in January. And just a few days after they published it, yet another natural disaster hit the West Coast…


Adam Smith: So another recent trend in this analysis that I think is becoming more apparent to people is this concept of compound disasters, so disasters that happen in a tight space-time frequency. So in California, the drought leading to wildfire leading to burn scars lead to these enhanced debris flows from these atmospheric rivers. That's a compound disaster over multiple months that we're seeing more of.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Now, I met with Adam during the winter earlier this year. And it’s been a long and challenging year since then. In early September, NCEI reported 23 billion dollar disasters already for 2023. That’s the most ever recorded during a calendar year.

Anisa Khalifa: So who else is at heightened risk?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: So speaking of hurricanes, the South is another region more likely to experience these kinds of disasters. Adam says states like Florida, Texas, and Louisiana have had the most billion-dollar disasters in the country. But, every state in the US has had at least one since 1980. We’re based in North Carolina, which has endured more than 100 in that time. That includes some in Adam’s own backyard. Back in August 2021, Tropical Storm Fred came through western North Carolina

Adam Smith: We had like three feet of water under our house, a lot of damage and we have to throw away a lot of stuff.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: So it’s something to remember that even though Asheville might be a safer place than say, New Orleans, there’s risk everywhere.

Anisa Khalifa: It's wild to think about Adam doing this research — maybe digging through the disaster data at his home — and then, just a few days later he’s dealing with this kind of flooding. So you said states like Florida, Texas, and Louisiana are prone to these kinds of disasters. But, Charlie, I'm assuming that not everyone is impacted in the same way.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Yup, Adam said exactly that.

Adam Smith: As with a lot of things, if you don't have a financial safety net, like insurance, for example, on your home, or your vehicle, your business, your crops, or you don't have a social safety net to help recover after disaster. I think the haves and the have nots, will continue to grow, as far as the gap between those, as we move into the future, if we don't better plan for these extremes that we know will continue.

Anisa Khalifa: Putting data in terms of dollars and cents is something that, for better or worse, I think everyone can relate to. But beyond ringing the alarm bell, how does the work at NCEI help people on the frontlines of the climate crisis?Charlie Shelton-Ormond: That’s where folks like Kathie Dello come in.

Kathie Dello: We connect with people on what they love about North Carolina, what's worth saving, and what's worth building up so that North Carolina can thrive in a changing climate.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Kathie is the state climatologist for North Carolina. Her team is based in Raleigh, but they work with government agencies, businesses, and individual people across the state, getting that data out there to the folks who need to use it.

Kathie Dello: It's not just me as a climate scientist saying, here's an important thing you need to know about, but really understanding, us as researchers taking a step back and recognizing that they know their communities inside and out.

Anisa Khalifa: It sounds like scientists like Kathie aren’t just going in and prescribing the same thing to everybody.Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Exactly. They’re helping diagnose what a specific community is going through and finding the best solutions for them. . And I really wanted to see some of this data in action. Kathie pointed me east. So I went to the farmlands of North Carolina’s coastal plain. There, I met up with farmer Joe Williams, bright and early at Blue River Legacy Farms. It’s a pretty big commercial blueberry farm near Elizabethtown in rural southeastern North Carolina.

Last year, Joe reached out to climatologists on Kathie’s team. He wanted to know more about his farm and its relationship with the changing climate, something he’s seen with his own eyes.

Joe Williams: I mean, climate change is a reality, and I don't think anybody around here will deny that. It doesn't matter, your, you know, background at all. I mean when you spend as much time as we do outside, you know.

Anisa Khalifa: What is Joe trying to figure out with his blueberries?Charlie Shelton-Ormond: He’s looking specifically at chilling hours.

Anisa Khalifa: Chilling hours?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Literally. Okay here’s the deal. In order for his blueberry bushes to produce a healthy crop in the spring, they have to go dormant during the previous winter and be exposed to temperatures below 45 degrees for a certain amount of time. Chilling hours.

Joe Williams: I kind of think of it like this chill is closing the refrigerator door. We want to close the refrigerator door and keep them in that refrigerator until the spring.

Anisa Khalifa: So what‘s the problem?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: He says normally there are enough chilling hours for his current blueberry bushes to comfortably go into hibernation mode starting in early winter. But recently, climatologists helped Joe forecast chilling hours on his farm all the way to the year 2045. Their analysis said summers are getting longer — which is pushing up against that ideal window of time.

Joe Williams: The further out that that is for that refrigerator door, it's definitely higher risk.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: A chilling period that is shortened and interrupted by periods of warm weather could result in unhealthy plants with poor quality berries or even no berries at all— a disaster for Joe.

Joe Williams: It would basically put us in a very vulnerable state, which we are in a very vulnerable state right now.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: But Anisa, what stood out to me is that despite the changing weather, Joe says some blueberry farmers are pushing the boundaries even further. They’re growing berries to be harvested earlier in the spring!

Joe Williams: Generally speaking, you know, what everyone's trying to do is get earlier and earlier. But that's where the crux of this chill hour data research is, is that the earlier we get, the more we're at risk, to these odd weather events that we have.

Anisa Khalifa: So it’s also this clash between capitalism and the climate. You want to get ahead of everybody else so that you’re first on the market with your blueberries, but the weather clearly has other plans.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Yeah, if that’s the route you want to go down, you have to adapt with a different kind of crop. And that’s exactly what Joe is doing right now — he has a small two-acre test plot growing nearly 20 different blueberry varieties. The goal is to identify new types of bushes that can grow comfortably in a changing North Carolina climate.

Joe Williams: And every one has their own right, and freedom to make the decisions that they want to on their farm. But we all need to be informed of what's going on.

Anisa Khalifa: Charlie, I’m thinking back to the basement in Asheville. Somewhere in all those boxes was the solution to Joe’s problem. What does Joe make of all of this?

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: He’s just glad that the raw data has been turned into a tool that is clear and easy to use.

Joe Williams: We want simple things like, Okay, we did all this research, and what is it telling you? Monday, turn the water on. Right? We just want to turn it into a simple directive. At the end of the day, that's, that's all that really matters.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: And in the end, that kind of accessibility could be the key to adapting to the climate crisis — and maybe even preventing the worst of its fallout.

Kathie Dello: Climate change isn't a data problem. If it were, we would have solved it by now.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Again, this is North Carolina’s state climatologist Kathie Dello. .

Kathie Dello: We know the climate is changing. We have temperature records, we have sea level rise, we can point to things on the ground, we've written so many reports. So we have to think about it more broadly than just giving people the data and hoping they understand it.

Anisa Khalifa: Charlie, thanks for taking me across the state — from Asheville in the west through Raleigh and to Joe's blueberry farm in the southeast.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: Of course, we went all over, didn't we. Thanks for having me.

Anisa Khalifa: The Broadside is a production of North Carolina Public Radio, WUNC. This episode was produced by Charlie Shelton-Ormond. Our editor is Jerad Walker. Thanks to Sean Roux for audio engineering support. I'm Anisa Khalifa. Thanks for listening.