During this rain-soaked summer, the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is installing devices around McDowell County and other parts of western North Carolina that will monitor weather conditions and help meteorologists better forecast intense storms.
These are the kinds of storms that can lead to flooding and flash flooding, something McDowell and other western North Carolina counties have already seen too much of during this spring and summer.
“We will get a good idea of the moisture flux into this area,” said meteorologist Clark King.
King works with NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo. He has already traveled to western North Carolina this summer to install weather monitoring stations at the fish hatchery off Hankins Road in Marion and at the Brindletown community in Burke County. These stations contain wind meters, portable radar equipment and other electronic devices that can monitor weather conditions in the Upper Catawba River basin.
Last week, he was busy installing another weather monitoring station at McDowell Technical Community College. Like the others, it has wind meters, a rain gauge and radar equipment. It features a portable wind profiling radar device that can see 15,000 feet up into the atmosphere, he said.
Later this month, Clark will place an even bigger weather monitoring station in Old Fort. It will be installed in the grassy area behind the Old Fort EMS base along U.S. 70. The wind profiling radar there will be able to see farther up into the atmosphere than the one at McDowell Tech.
In July, the McDowell County Commissioners approved the leasing of the land behind the EMS base in Old Fort for this project by NOAA.
Other weather monitoring stations similar to these are planned for the Mount Hebron community, Woodlawn, Spruce Pine, Crossnore and Table Rock.
The purpose of all this is to help NOAA improve its forecasting of rain and other forms of precipitation, especially during the warmer months.
NOAA’s Hydrometerology Testbed (HMT) conducts “research on precipitation and weather conditions that can lead to flooding and flash flooding, and fosters transition of scientific advances and new tools into forecasting operations.” This concept consists of a series of demonstration projects in different regions of the United States “to enhance understanding of region-specific processes related to precipitation,” according to the plan by NOAA for the Upper Catawba.
NOAA started installing these weather monitoring stations in the Western states of California, Oregon and Washington in 2004. This part of the project is called HMT-West. Others were added in Arizona in 2008 and Colorado in 2009. In order to broaden the research and gain more information, NOAA officials decided to conduct similar operations in the Southeast with an extended field project in western North Carolina. This deployment of these devices started in May and will last through September 2014.
“It is hoped that the pilot project will provide an initial step towards long operations in the southeast region, similar to the way HMT-West was started in California,” reads the plan by NOAA.
On Thursday, Clark and an assistant were working to place their equipment at a site next to McDowell Tech.
A weather monitoring station was also installed in New Bern, which is located near the coast. NOAA is also working with similar sites in Raleigh and Charlotte that are operated by the state of North Carolina. This allows NOAA to get a broader perspective about storms moving through western North Carolina, especially those that are tropical storms or depressions left over from hurricanes moving inland.
Clark said NOAA picked McDowell County and the foothills of western North Carolina for this pilot project basically because of its topography.
“They wanted to concentrate on a river basin and the Upper Catawba was a nice choice,” he said.
The devices at these stations will monitor rainfall, winds and other weather conditions. They can also measure how much the ground is saturated by rain.
Clark said he installed the weather station at Brindletown in late June. It has already measured 40 inches of rainfall since that time.
All the information collected at these weather stations will be transmitted to Clark and other NOAA meteorologists in Boulder, Colo. There, they will interpret the data and provide models of weather patterns. The information will help the federal agency better forecast major storms that can cause flooding, landslides and other problems.
McDowell County and western North Carolina have had a significant history with intense storms and flooding. The great flood of July 1916 caused major damage throughout the region. It happened when two hurricanes converged over the mountains and foothills, which resulted three days of heavy downpours and the worst flood in history of the Upper Catawba.
More recently, the remnants of tropical storms Frances and Ivan dumped huge amounts of rain over McDowell and western North Carolina in September 2004. That flood was compared to the one in 1916.
“Those are the types of events we are looking at,” said Clark.